Entrepreneurship | February 16, 2018

Mark Warner: ‘Virginia is for Entrepreneurs’ shows policy leadership

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New Revivalists is a series from ImpactAlpha and Village Capital profiling the people, places and policies reviving entrepreneurship — and the American Dream.

New Revivalist: Sen. Mark Warner
Place: Virginia
Mission: A former entrepreneur, Sen. Warner helped launch Virginia is for Entrepreneurs, a statewide investment network to increase access to capital for both rural and urban entrepreneurs.
Follow: @MarkWarner

In Washington, Sen. Mark Warner is known as a leader of the Senate’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Back in Virginia, Warner likes to remind voters that he was first an entrepreneur. (He launched two startups that “failed miserably,” he says, before a successful cellphone venture).

In December, Warner and former Gov. Terry McAuliffe launched “Virginia is for Entrepreneurs” (VA4E), a statewide effort to make sure the state’s entrepreneurs have access to the capital and support they need to grow their businesses. It includes a web-based platform meant to connect startups to resources that can help them grow. Businesses enter basic information about their company, what the business does and what its goals are, and share the information.

“There are investors in Richmond who don’t know about the incredible innovation taking place 60 miles away in Charlottesville,” Warner told ImpactAlpha. “Bringing people together and connecting them — creating an ecosystem of entrepreneurship — is a great way to encourage and support innovation.”

‘Virginia is for Entrepreneurs’ aims to streamline funding for local startups

ImpactAlpha: What problem is Virginia is for Entrepreneurs trying to address?

Warner: Virginia is for Entrepreneurs is a collaboration of leaders and stakeholders across the Commonwealth who are trying to grow, support and invest in entrepreneurs, no matter who they are or where they live.

I know firsthand how hard it can be to get the right support as an entrepreneur. I launched two startups right out of law school — and both failed miserably. I got a third shot and was fortunate enough to get in on the early days of the cellphone industry. I was able to build on that success by contributing toward the growth of the emerging venture capital industry in Northern Virginia, including Columbia Capital, a venture firm I co-founded.

Today, if you’re trying to start the next tech company in Northern Virginia, you’ve got a pretty good shot. According to the Kauffman Foundation, Virginia is the No. 1 state for growth entrepreneurs. But when I travel across Virginia and see agriculture entrepreneurs in Abingdon, or innovators in advanced manufacturing in Virginia Beach, the odds are against them. We started Virginia is for Entrepreneurs to create a level playing field for founders everywhere.

ImpactAlpha: What types of Virginia businesses do you think VA4E will help?

Warner: Our focus has been on helping entrepreneurs access capital and the other resources they need to grow. Today, building a business isn’t always a meritocracy. If you know lots of people with money, or perhaps went to a college with a built-in social network, it’s easier to raise funding. But the problem is in having the access to those networks.

So we launched a web-based platform where any business can fill out some basic information about who they are, what their business does and what their goals are, and hopefully they can connect to resources that can help them grow.

We have done initial pilots at statewide events in Charlottesville and Alexandria, and at a Southwest Virginia-focused gathering in Roanoke. We’re excited to go to many more sites in the coming months. We’ve had over 300 businesses and nearly 100 investors register on the platform, and we have 88 connections that are currently exploring investment.

Our goal is to give that agriculture entrepreneur in Abingdon the same opportunity that a high-tech entrepreneur in Northern Virginia with lots of venture capitalist friends already has.

ImpactAlpha: What was the genesis of VA4E?

Warner: As a former governor, I know there’s plenty of capital in Virginia to grow our best ideas. Yet over the past 30 years I often grew frustrated seeing promising entrepreneurs and founders struggle to find capital — because I know it’s out there!

The biggest problem is matching the supply of capital with the demand for capital, so I convened a group of leaders across the Commonwealth two years ago to figure out how to solve it. Out of that group came this idea, Virginia is for Entrepreneurs, which was a truly collaborative effort among public and private sector leaders that focused on solving these problems.

More broadly, one of the ways we can encourage entrepreneurship across the Commonwealth is to foster relationships among communities. I travel all across Virginia and hear from incubators and accelerators in Northern Virginia who know nothing about what their counterparts are doing in Hampton Roads, or in central Virginia.

ImpactAlpha: VA4E is a response to a challenge that many states face. Will other states adopt the approach?

Warner: We’re seeing tremendous shifts in the nature of entrepreneurship. I’ve been focused on the “future of work” for several years, where now up to 40% of Americans are essentially working for themselves. We need to change the nature of how we support these entrepreneurs—not just with respect to access to capital, but portable benefits they can take from job to job, mentorship and upskilling opportunities and more.

As I look across the country, I’m incredibly encouraged to see innovations like VA4E emerging. We had representatives from Colorado, North Carolina, and Tennessee at our launch last month, so of course I’d love to share what we are learning with the rest of America.

ImpactAlpha: What misconceptions exist about the role of government in boosting local entrepreneurship?

Warner: Most people look to the government for only big money in economic development — think of ribbon-cuttings for new office parks. And while we are excited to work with partners of any size, we need to remember that the Kauffman Foundation estimates entrepreneurs create nearly 100% of net new jobs. Any good economic development strategy needs to involve building entrepreneurial ecosystems.

VA4E is an example of how [government] can play many roles. We can serve as an honest broker that can bring leaders to the table. We can use our networks. For instance, we were excited to involve the state’s Small Business Development Centers (funded by the federal government and the Commonwealth) — in the development and growth of VA4E.

We have a range of ecosystem-building organizations that are statewide (our Center for Innovative Technology provided initial support to VA4E’s pilot), while also tapping into local and regional anchor institutions like our public universities. Yes we have money, but we also help build ecosystems.

ImpactAlpha: How can other states build consensus and a coalition of stakeholders?

Warner: When I got my start as an entrepreneur, I was working in an industry — mobile communications — that was still nascent. It was changing every week. Most entrepreneurs feel like collaborating with others takes too much time, and the government moves too slow. But inventing a new industry required patience and collaboration. That’s exactly what we need today.

Launching VA4E required strong leadership from the Commonwealth: Govs. McAuliffe and Northam and Karen Jackson, the former secretary of technology. Paul Hirschbiel of the 757 Angels, led the working group. Ross Baird of Village Capital, built and tested the platform with a dozen leaders across the Commonwealth. No one could have done this alone.

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