Q&A with Embarc Collective's Allie Felix

Allie Felix is Director of Partnerships and Programming for Embarc Collective, an innovation hub based in Tampa Bay, Florida. Prior to Embarc, she led community and business development for NYC startup and VC organizations including Work-Bench and 37 Angels.

What drew you to venture capital and working with startups?

I call this my VC origin story. I didn’t know anything about venture capital until I met Tim Draper at Smith College’s annual competition for women entrepreneurs. Tim’s mother, sister, and wife were all Smithies, and because of this, they’ve made generous contributions to the College’s startup and innovation programming. The competition emphasized many practical skills that weren’t taught in the classroom: ideating, pitching, public speaking, and networking. I was drawn to this energy and passion that came from working with startups.

I was fortunate to work for Tim after college – I headed to San Francisco to lead marketing and partnerships for the founder training program Draper University. When I was ready to go back to the east coast, platform and community was just on the rise as a new role that had broken out. I knew I wanted to stay in this world and luckily my skills translated well into the platform VC role.

Why Embarc Collective? I know you’re from Tampa, but what about the city drove you to help launch an innovation hub there?

That’s a great question. Ever since I left nearly four years ago, I've had my eye on Tampa Bay's startup activity. Through staying in contact on Twitter and LinkedIn, I have watched the community rally around the city’s growth — from the $3B investment to develop Water Street Tampa by Jeff Vinik (the brainchild behind Embarc Collective) and Cascade Investment (Bill Gates' investment fund) to the launch of Dreamit’s Urban & Secure Tech Accelerator. Tampa also hosts the 3,000-person Synapse Innovation Summit, where I had the opportunity to speak last year. There’s a lot of excitement and momentum in Tampa that drove me back.

I deeply felt the desire to take the skills I’ve learned and connections I’ve made and do the same thing I’ve always done – except in a place where I can create such a greater impact. Embarc Collective is that opportunity for me. We are building a physical innovation hub, an 'x marks the spot' for all startup activity in Tampa Bay. The mission of the organization as a 501(c)(3) is to make Tampa Bay a prime destination for diverse startup talent to make an impact – professionally and personally. I shared more about why I made the move in a blog post here.

I’ve talked to Jess Lin and Steph Manning about building the NY enterprise community through Work-Bench. One of your Medium posts talks about the 3 key components for building a startup community: identify, build, share. Can you talk more about those components and how you’re incorporating lessons from Work-Bench into your approach with Embarc?

I love the strong community approach that Work-Bench has taken, and I’d attribute much of their success to the team’s deliberate focus on community as a venture fund and 32k sq. foot workspace.

Work-Bench is really successfully at hitting all three of these community components. For identify, we created open source list of women to meet in enterprise tech as an outgrowth of our Women in Enterprise Tech summit with Salesforce Ventures. We had trouble finding speakers… but we knew they existed. As we did our research, we created this list so that no other enterprise tech conference could say they didn’t know where to find women panelists and participants. We built community with our 200+ annual events: targeted content and programming on a weekly basis in our physical space. And for sharing, I think of our Enterprise Weekly newsletter that went out to 13,000 people every Friday morning.

When I map that experience to Embarc Collective, the work is similar but I’m in a much more nascent ecosystem now. Our day-to-day is unique because we aren’t open in our physical space yet (we’ll open in March 2019). I spend time identifying founders in the region and gaps that exist, so we can best serve Tampa Bay’s tech community. I’m building out programming. I’m sharing stories online and through everyday conversations with people like you on Embarc Collective’s mission.

I’d love to hear more about your time at Draper University. How was Draper and its focus on innovation a unique experience versus other educational programs?

Draper University is an incredible place for like-minded people from all over the world (80% international) to go from idea to a product to pitching to VC investors. The program experientially trains founder skills through classes like improv, peak performance training, and “survival week” in the woods. The program differentiated because it is designed to get founders comfortable with being uncomfortable, because that’s when you really push progress.

The program is well-suited for college student and post grads that are trying to get connected to the startup ecosystem. It sounds corny but the people I met there from Tim to my colleagues and students changed me. I can’t speak highly enough of the experience and it was an incredible foundation for what I’ve been doing in VC.

In what ways does a network like 37 Angels differ from than a traditional VC fund? How did you help guide Angels + Angels-in-Training as the Business Development Manager?

When I made the leap from SF back to the east coast I got connected with Angela Lee, the founder of 37 Angels as well as the Chief Innovation Officer for Columbia Business School – she’s fantastic. I worked there in a part-time capacity while at Work-Bench to recruit angels in our target profile: women who were typically exited founders and wanted to join startup boards or become industry experts. In the same way you’re balancing Negotiating the Terms with Oscar, it was like having a full-time job on top of a full-time job. I loved what I was learning and the people I was meeting, so it wasn’t a sacrifice at all.

To break down the difference between 37 Angels and a traditional fund like Work-Bench, a traditional fund will invest in deals throughout the lifecycle of its fund. Those deals are sourced from community, referrals and relationship-building efforts. Alternatively, a network like 37 Angels has an application process. Selected startups pitch at a bi-monthly forum in front of the angels. Following that pitch forum, the network will form small diligence teams and create memos to share with larger network. If there’s interest in a deal, the network will invest $50-150K with most angels putting in $25k each.

What has the process been like building Embarc from the ground up? Have you faced any major challenges?

Building an organization from the ground up is incredible process where no two days the same. My first day of work was spent reviewing pitches by architecture firms on the build out for our space (literally, building from ground up). Fortunately, I’m working under the guidance of our CEO Lakshmi Shenoy, formerly on the leadership team of 1871 in Chicago. Growing 1871 as the top university-affiliated incubator, she has incredible foresight into how Embarc Collective can become a prime destination for diverse startup talent in Tampa Bay.

A challenge for us has been identifying a comprehensive source for information on all investors, customers, and companies in Tampa Bay. That just doesn’t exist in Tampa like it does in NYC or SF– yet. We hope to eliminate these silos by aggregating the resources in this area and identifying gaps so that we can support founders and their teams with their growth.

What investment areas do you foresee Tampa having a competitive advantage?

Embarc Collective is helping to shape a narrative for Tampa Bay’s competitive advantage as a startup ecosystem. We’re building on a number of a core industries and customers:

  1. Healthcare tech - Fortune 500 company WellCare, Tampa General Hospital, top cancer treatment and research organization Moffitt, and USF Health - all of this contributes to a rich environment for healthcare R&D.

  2. Security tech - Not many people know that US Special Operations Command is in Tampa. They review, coordinate, and prioritize training and operations for the Department of Defense. They also develop technology for branches of the US government and foreign militaries like the Green Berets, Navy SEALs, and Marine Raiders. In addition, Dreamit Ventures launched their secure tech program in Tampa Bay this year.

  3. Urban tech - With Water Street Tampa, one of the nation’s largest real estate developments, we have the chance to reinvent our urban core. Because of this activity, Dreamit also runs their urban tech vertical here.

  4. Sports and entertainment tech - I’m most bullish on this one. We have three major sports teams (Buccaneers, Lighting, and Rays) as well as intercollegiate sports and a thriving collective of minor league franchises. We’re also home to Busch Gardens, Tampa’s iconic theme park, and not too far from the iconic Walt Disney World. All of these entities are within an hour's drive. We don’t have many startups in this space but given the density and proximity of customers, we have the right ingredients to create new, emerging technologies for sports and entertainment.

From your time in NYC, how have you given and received support from the female VC community?

As a community builder, my day-to-day is spent trying to connect the dots for people. Helping others through a challenge is what makes me tick. I think NYC has one of the most supportive startup and VC communities to do that. I was part of a number of organizations that championed inclusion and empowerment like Parity Partners, Dreamers and Doers, Bloom’s Morning Mingles and NYC Blend, which helped me meet and forge authentic relationships to accelerate my integration into NY.

What advice do you have for young women who want to enter VC - on the investing, operations, or platform side?

I have two pieces of advice. The first thing I’d advise is building a personal brand through social media and blog content to demonstrate your passion and interests. Every investor and fund is having conversations on Twitter and sharing thought leadership Medium. If you want to meet them, you should be there too -- go where your audience is.

This second one is tactical: when you first start going to startup and VC events, always take pictures to tweet with a quote from the speaker. The result is two-fold: it shows that you’re an active community member interested in these topics and it opens up an authentic dialogue with that person. This method of sharing your brand is an easy way to build name recognition and credibility. Here’s a post I wrote on how to 10x your network with a few tactical tips on other ways I do this daily.