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Say It With Me – “Columbia Can Be A Startup City”

I’ve been a member of the Columbia community for about five years. I went to school at the University of South Carolina, and loved this place for the experience it gave me as a student. However, I wasn’t keen on the idea of staying in Columbia after graduation. But, some career opportunities fell into place for me, and here I am.

And something has happened since I graduated with that pretty gloomy outlook a few months ago: I’ve started to notice this place actually has a lot to offer.

Columbia has a fantastic local food culture; our single-location restaurants have some of the best food I’ve ever tasted. We have a strong local arts scene, a national park just down the road, beautiful rivers and lakes and landscapes to explore. And a University right near the heart of downtown that boasts both one of the top Honors Colleges and top business schools in the country.

Let’s stop and think about that last attribute for a second. We have one of the most talented student pools in the nation. And yet Columbia isn’t generally seen as the place for young professionals, not even in our own state. So what gives? Why is there a gap between those exceptional students and local economic growth?

Maybe it’s because so many students have the same thoughts about Columbia that I did before I graduated: that there is nothing here for them after college.

Why don’t they see what I’ve begun to see?

It’s because we don’t sell it well. We haven’t done a great job of telling this city’s story. To many, Columbia doesn’t really have an identity. Sure, the reputation of “great college town” attracts kids to USC, but they leave the moment they graduate. Our identity can’t be as a college town. We’re so much more than that. We need an identity that will keep the talent we grow, here.

But the thing is, we already have that identity. We just need more people to see it.

Recently, Columbia was ranked 4th in the nation in SmartAsset’s Top 10 Cities with the Lowest Startup Costs. That is absolutely a recognition we need to hang our hat on.

When I write for Midlands Anchor, I help with Startup Spotlight. Simply put, I write about startups for a startup publication. This is my passion for Columbia. This is what gives this community the potential to be great.

Last week, our Midlands Anchor CEO Tia Williams had the opportunity to be a featured guest on “The Global Startup Movement.” Podcast host and founder Andrew Berkowitz also interviewed some other individuals in the “who’s who” of Columbia’s startup community:

  • Jack Beasley – Director of the USC / Columbia Technology Incubator
  • Greg Hilton – Director at SOCO, Columbia’s premier co-working community
  • Charlie Banks – Director of Venture South, formerly the South Carolina Angel Network (an investment group)

I listened to all of those interviews, and they were unbelievably insightful and inspirational. Far more so than I can explain in my own words. So, I’ll let their words do the talking (with a couple headlines I considered as the most important points made by each interviewee):

 

This city has come a long way:

TW: “There were a lot of groups [to help startups] already in place, they just weren’t working together. But just in the last 3 years, there’s been this gritty, organic, we’re going to do this if there’s infrastructure-or-not feeling.”

GH: “There was no startup scene here five years ago. This was really a government city. I think where we are now is we are finally starting to see some individuals in our community, and some individual initiatives, really take shape and start to rise up.”

 

We’ve only just begun:

TW: “We’re really at the beginning of something new here”

GH: “This city that we love, it’s full of all of this potential… We’re at the beginning of what I think is going to be an incredible story.”

 

We’re building the organizations that can lead the charge:

TW: “[Midlands Anchor’s] mission statement boils down to ‘connecting, engaging and igniting the Midlands.’”

GH: “[SOCO’s mission is to] Create a resource, and a platform, and a community that would help the most talented, creative people in our city stay… What we have evolved into is a community of over 60 innovators, entrepreneurs, creative professionals”

JB: “One of [the Incubator’s] goals is to create new high-wage jobs and retain talented entrepreneurs within our growing ecosystem.”

 

There are so many reasons to be excited about this area:

TW: “The Midlands is one of the best untapped regions in the country… We have a ton of people moving here every year, and they are very smart and capable students… There is going to be a huge movement in the next ten years of these creative, smart people.”

GH: “This place is full of incredible people with incredible talents… “You can do a tremendous amount of stuff here, and lead a really full and rich life, professionally and socially, for a really affordable price. For an entrepreneur, I think that creates a really compelling reason to come here.”

JB: “There are so many opportunities for someone who is a student, or even a graduate, or somebody who’s is a retiree that wants to get a taste at becoming an entrepreneur. You’ve got a great local chapter of 1 Million Cups, there’s annual events like Startup Weekend at USC, you have the entrepreneurship club, Proving Grounds… I think there is more talent opportunity, and people that want to help entrepreneurs succeed, than we’ve ever had.

CB: “I’m really excited about the deals flowing from Columbia. The ecosystem is starting to grow up… It’s a cheap place to do business, and you’ve got a great network of mentors and advisors that are ready to help”

 

We’re ready to be great now. But there is still more we can do:

JB: “A lot of people have realized that you can make it here, you don’t have to go somewhere else, there are opportunities here.”

TW: “We’ve got it all there. We don’t need to spend more money, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel, we just need to streamline what we already have.”

GH: “What we need more than anything else is, we need to create a new wave of entrepreneurial activity. We need to create a new sense of energy, and then we need as many people as possible entering this pipeline… The entrepreneurial spirit is here, but it is untapped. And I think we have the framework… the University and the Incubator and platforms like SOCO.”

CB: “Building an entrepreneurship ecosystem is cool, it’s sexy, there are a lot of people wanting to do it. But a series of PR high-fives doesn’t constitute an ecosystem. It needs to see actual, tangible change in the mindset of the community.”

 

The programs these individuals run are incredible, and their visions are inspiring beyond description. If I said all that I want to say about them, this article would be the length of a thesis paper and you would be here reading for hours. Trust me, listen to these podcasts, or find a way to reach out to these guys (and gal). You’ll begin to feel what I feel.

Let’s go back to that #4 ranking for low-cost startup cities. It seems we’re starting to make a name for ourselves. But right now, it’s only the startup community that sees it. As Charlie Banks said, PR high-fives don’t mean real change. We need to see a transformation in the mindset of all Midlands citizens.

So how do we change the narrative?

Consider my roots, as a Gamecock. Many Midlands citizens are also Gamecock fans. And let’s face it, Gamecock athletics (I’m mostly talking about football) haven’t exactly been consistently successful. Yet even in 0-win, 11-loss seasons, Gamecock fans still believe in their team. And we let the whole world know it (a common slogan around here for Williams-Brice Stadium is “If it ain’t swayin,’ we ain’t playin’).

Let’s get behind another cause with that much fervor. One that has a real chance to change the game for this city. Let’s scream it from the rooftops. Let’s put that #4 ranking on a massive banner and hang it from the BB&T building.

We have the people. We have the resources. We have the enthusiasm. We have the city.

Columbia is a startup city.

Say it with me now.

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