It’s a typical Thursday in St. Louis, though perhaps colder and gustier than some. But even the wind doesn’t dissuade the 576 people gathered at the Cambridge Innovation Center in the Cortex district near downtown St. Louis.
Karen Barnes is among them—braving the cold, far from home in Winston-Salem. At the moment, the executive director of the newly-minted Venture Café Winston-Salem is grilling Dave Messina, chief operating officer of a local St. Louis start-up, by way of introduction.
“Where’s your badge? What’s your number?” Karen asks in a mock accusatory tone.
Dave had been in a hurry. He pats his chest where his name tag would usually go and answers, “I think I’m at about 22 or 23. I feel like it’s lower than it should be given how close I am to this place.”
“This place” is the Thursday Night Gathering of Venture Café, a weekly event that brings people together to spur innovation and entrepreneurship in cities across the globe. The “number” in question references the number of times a person has been to a particular Venture Café—in Dave’s case, Venture Café St. Louis. Every Venture Café attendee receives a name tag emblazoned with their name and current number. Karen’s tag reads “1,” though if they had counted her trip to Venture Café Miami a few weeks ago it would have been two.
“The name tags are pretty genius,” Dave says. “They’re an automatic conversation-starter. It’s easy to say, ‘Oh, you’re new,’ or ‘You’ve been here a lot.’”
Outside the glass walls of the conference room where they sit, a group of three people pass by, their numbered name tags identifying them as fellow attendees. In their hands are beers from the free bar just outside the hallway, where the majority of the attendees of the Venture Café that night spill out into the atrium of @4240, a historic distribution center for a phone company turned biotechnology hub that houses the Cambridge Innovation Center.
Karen asks Dave, “If you were in my shoes, what would you do to make Venture Café better?”
Karen is visiting Venture Café St. Louis, which has been operating since 2014, to experience what an established Venture Café program looks like. Very soon, Venture Café Winston-Salem will be hosting its own Thursday nights in Wake Forest Innovation Quarter. She pulled Dave aside after his participation in a panel discussion to learn what the Venture Café experience is like for attendees.
As Dave mulls over his idea, she adds, “And no pressure, because I’m only going to do exactly what you tell me.”
“This advice is worth exactly what you’re paying for it,” he replies with a laugh—Venture Café programming is free. The two launch into a discussion, resulting in a robust collaboration on how to improve the name tag system, Karen sketching out what it would look like on the whiteboard wall behind them.
Currently there are five Venture Café locations: Boston, St. Louis, Rotterdam, Miami and Winston-Salem, which is the newest member on the block. Each Venture Café looks a bit different, but they are all part of a global network—coordinated by the Venture Café Global Institute—dedicated to building strong, inclusive innovation ecosystems. The Venture Café organization is unique to the city it resides in, but can pull from the resources of the global network, which plans to expand to several new locales like Warsaw, Santiago, Philadelphia and Tokyo.
Existing Venture Cafés are located in up-and-coming innovation districts and housed in aspirational spaces designed for the needs of entrepreneurs and start-ups. To get that unique, cool space that is a hallmark of Venture Café around the world, the Winston-Salem location will be housed in the Innovation Quarter, home to one of the major drivers in bringing the program to Winston-Salem: Inmar.
Together with the leadership of the Innovation Quarter, Inmar helped Karen secure major funding for the program from the DataMax Foundation, a Winston-Salem-based foundation that funds education and economic-related projects in Forsyth County. Wexford Science + Technology, which brought Winston-Salem to Venture Café’s attention in the first place, is donating space in Bailey Power Plant for the organization’s permanent home.
Connecting Innovators to Make Things Happen
One commonality between Venture Café locations is their flagship program—the Thursday Night Gathering, a weekly five-hour event—a mini-conference—that includes sessions, workshops, a free bar and plenty of space for attendees just to talk.
Karen’s mission at the Thursday Night Gathering in St. Louis is simple: drink deep of the experience. Which is how she found herself talking with Dave. He spoke at a panel discussion on using local resources to grow your company, and afterward she pulled him aside in the conference room to learn his personal Venture Café success story.
Dave is the co-founder and chief operating officer of a start-up called Cofactor Genomics, which uses RNA to diagnose disease.
“RNA is kind of like a barometer of your health,” he says. “We’re trying to help physicians use RNA to prescribe the right treatment for patients as individuals, not as averages.”
“Personalized medicine, man,” Karen says. “Very cool.”
Dave continues, “It was my first or second time at Venture Café, and I was really excited about it. I live one block from here and I work two blocks from here.”
“This is your neighborhood!” Karen responds.
“Totally my neighborhood,” Dave agrees. “My first time here, I talked to this film producer for, like, forty-five minutes. Someone asked me afterward what I, a scientist, had in common with a film producer; it seemed like an odd combination.”
Karen is nodding. “I love it!”
Dave explains that in their work both he and the producer explore what it means to be human—they just approach the question from different angles. This shared exploration led to a conversation about how to communicate those ideas to other people, how to speak like a human to other human beings.
We were able to tell the story of our company instead of just talking science.
Essentially, how to tell stories.
Their interaction turned into more than just a philosophical conversation. Shortly thereafter, Dave went to pitch his company to Y Combinator, the world’s most successful early start-up fund. The seed accelerator—which helped launch the likes of Airbnb and Dropbox—rarely accepts biotech start-ups.
When it came time to pitch his idea, Dave retired his usual talk, highlighting the scientific rationales for the start-up, and instead “spoke like a human.” And it worked.
“That conversation at Venture Café was partially responsible for our company getting into Y Combinator because we were able to tell the story of our company instead of just talking science,” he tells Karen.
With his company up and running, Dave now attends Venture Café to give back. He’s a regular, both as an attendee and a speaker. “I keep coming because I believe the connections made at Venture Café are important,” he says.
“What drew me to Venture Café was that same thing,” says Karen, “the human-ness, the connections. Part of my job description is to use innovation to improve the human condition, and when I read that for the first time, I was, like, ‘YES! THAT’S WHAT I WANT TO DO! That’s the best job in Winston-Salem.’”
Expecting the Unexpected
Dave’s panel discussion is a sample of the programming that goes on throughout the Thursday Night Gathering. In St. Louis, Karen chases down one of the people behind the programming genius, Christina Celuzza, program coordinator for Venture Café St. Louis, to learn about their philosophy.
“How do you keep it fresh every week?” Karen asks Christina. She clarifies, “Essentially, you are hosting a mini-conference every week. How do you keep the programs fresh?”
“It’s important to us that our programming is unique. We want programming that people wouldn’t normally expect from an entrepreneurship conference or networking event,” says Christina as they sit at a butcher-block tabletop supported by an antique boiler drum that was salvaged from the historic building.
“So the philosophy is not, ‘Oh, it’s March 7: all the Venture Cafés are talking about how to market your business.’” Karen clarifies.
Christina laughs at Karen. “Definitely not,” she answers. “We want people to speak about what makes them excited—that’s what gets other people excited and starts those conversations that go unexpected places.”
This particular Thursday Night in St. Louis is a prime example of the variety attendees can expect each week. As Karen and Christina chat, a dozen tables are being set up for a chess tournament behind them, while on the floor above, Chess Grand Master Denes Boros is playing seven simultaneous matches against Venture Café’s finest players. Breakout sessions for the evening include a talk on how to eat like an innovator, a discussion by the inventor of Billy-Bob teeth and Dave’s panel discussion on local resources for entrepreneurs.
A Brief History of Venture Café
In 1999, the Cambridge Innovation Center began in Kendall Square across the street from MIT. The purpose of the Center is to provide workspace for innovative companies, from fledging start-ups to tech giants. As the tenants and clients of the Cambridge Innovation Center started asking for ways to connect with the surrounding community, the idea of Venture Café was born.
Venture Café was created as a non-profit organization to manage the programmatic side of connecting innovators, starting with their first program in 2009, the Thursday Night Gatherings.
“Before Venture Café existed there were a lot of disparate efforts, but very few coordinated efforts to bring the community together,” says Travis Sheridan, president of Venture Café Global Institute. “So Venture Café got to play the role of convener and coordinator, which is one of the roles that it still plays today.”
The model worked in Cambridge; would it work in other places? The first places Venture Café looked to expand were the cities you would imagine: New York, San Francisco, Austin.
“What we realized was that those cities didn’t have a need,” Sheridan says. “We were looking for cities that were trending in the right direction, that had a lot of the natural and normal assets necessary for growing an emerging tech hub, but needed help getting there. That’s when places like St. Louis popped up on our radar.”
St. Louis was Venture Café’s first U.S. transplant in 2012, with Miami following in 2016. In 2014, Venture Café opened in Rotterdam in the Netherlands, beginning its global expansion. As Venture Café expanded, the Venture Café Global Institute was created to develop systems that can be shared across the different cities, to identify best practices, to help with training and onboarding and to provide connectivity between Venture Cafés and communities.
Winston-Salem makes the list of cities as Venture Café number five. An impressive feat, considering the cities under consideration next include Tokyo, Warsaw, Dublin and Santiago.
The sessions are held in rooms off the atrium—some are conversations between a half dozen people, while other talks gather more of a crowd. All the while, swaths of people mill about the common space, deep in conversation or working their way through the crowd, meeting people as they go.
“Where do the ideas for programming come from?” Karen asks.
“A lot of our programming comes from the community,” says Christina. “People come to me with things they want to learn about or want to speak on. A lot want to give talks on a particular topic because it keeps coming up in the conversations they have on Thursday nights.”
“You’re not designing programming then,” says Karen. “You’re reflecting programming back to the community when they tell you ‘This is what I’m seeing in my industry sector,’ or ‘This is what I can speak on.’”
“That’s exactly it,” Christina responds. “You’re good; you’re like the new Oprah.”
Karen lights up. “Did you hear that?” she asks, looking around for bystanders who might have heard. “I’m the new Oprah!”
This community-listening quality is another hallmark of Venture Café. When a Venture Café opens in a new city, it identifies the entrepreneurial activity already in it and seeks to support the unique climate and needs of that community through programming. In Rotterdam, that might look like a bike tour of the city that introduces start-up entrepreneurs to major investors in the area, while in Miami it might take the form of pitch nights held in neighborhoods traditionally overlooked by entrepreneurial organizations.
I’m the new Oprah!
Christina reigns Karen back in. “That community-driven aspect keeps Thursdays fresh and interesting,” she says. “It’s not a top-down approach. It’s what the community wants.”
“Can I steal you and bring you to Winston-Salem?” Karen asks as Christina gets pulled away to set up for one of the sessions. “Or clone you or something?” She’s joking…mostly.
Joining a Global Innovation Community
At around hour three of the Thursday Night Gathering, conversations are in full-swing. Pairs break off to find quiet spots to talk; others travel the atrium, finding new places to break into conversation. Travis Sheridan, president of the Venture Café Global Institute, finds Karen in the crowds and steers her to the first floor. A cutout in the floor above them exposes glass skylights, and they relax on informal seating with a mesh partition that semi-encapsulates their discussion.
“When I’ve spoken with key drivers of this initiative in Winston-Salem, like Eric Tomlinson [President, Wake Forest Innovation Quarter] and David Mounts [CEO, Inmar], they are really excited about how this program might meet needs in your city,” Travis says.
He pauses as a group of about twenty foreign exchange students—there for the chess tournament—pass. “Now that you’ve gotten a taste of Venture Café, what do you think it will look like in your city?”
She’s been thinking about this all night. “I don’t think that Winston-Salem truly identifies as being a city of innovation yet. We own the art part, but not the innovation part. I want our Venture Café to help our city really own that part of our identity.”
“That spirit is part of what drew us to Winston-Salem in the first place,” Travis says. “A strong spirit of entrepreneurship roams the halls of your community.”
You’ve always had the courage, you’ve always had the heart, the innovation has always been there.
Karen leans over confidentially. “You know what really excites me? Winston-Salem getting access to all the cool things that are going on way beyond our little corner of the world.”
As her excitement builds, Karen gestures to illustrate the connections she perceives. “I can reach out to my counterpart in Rotterdam and say, ‘I’ve got this awesome start-up that I think fits into your industry focus—I think we can start some conversations around this.’”
By joining the Venture Café family, Winston-Salem opens the door to bigger connections with other cities. Opportunities emerge to engage companies and investors in other cities and to connect entrepreneurs with potential partners and customers in other places.
“I think that it means something that Venture Café came to Winston-Salem as opposed to places like Charlotte or Raleigh or Atlanta,” Karen continues. “To me, that’s a major vote of confidence in our ability to be a player on the global innovation scene.”
“That’s what we want for Venture Café Winston-Salem,” says Travis. “It’s like the Wizard of Oz: you realize that you were wearing the ruby slippers all along. You’ve always had the courage, you’ve always had the heart, the innovation has always been there. Venture Café is not some outside entity that comes in to create innovation: we’re just here to help you recognize the potential you already have.”
If Winston-Salem is Dorothy, then Travis is Oz, signified by the emerald green Adidas sneakers he’s wearing. He collects a certain kind of shoe and owns them in almost every color—the irony of today’s choice isn’t lost on Karen.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you not wearing a pair of those shoes. Don’t you have like 20 pairs of them?” Karen remarks on the shoes, his signature work uniform.
“It’s more like fifteen,” Travis corrects.
“Sorry, Wiz. Fifteen,” she amends.
While Karen’s own work uniform—brightly checked button-ups shirts—might look reminiscent of Dorothy’s blue gingham, that’s not Karen’s role in the metaphor.
“Well, I’m no Glinda,” she says. “No one has a magic wand or has all the answers, but I love this city and I want to make it better. And if we start the conversations and make connections with each other, I think we’ll realize that all we need is already within us.”
As Winston-Salem embarks on its grand adventure with Venture Café, Karen is much more akin to the Yellow Brick Road, functioning as a guide, helping to lead the entrepreneurial community in the city she loves into conversation with other innovation communities around the world.
Moving Forward Toward the Future
As the Thursday Night Gathering progresses, Karen steals a minute to talk with Tyler Mathews, the executive director of Venture Café St. Louis. The two share a bond: they both started as executive directors on the same day. Their challenges differ, however; while Karen is starting a program from scratch in Winston-Salem, Tyler is trying to take a well-established, well-attended program to the next level.
“Venture Café in St. Louis is a runaway success,” Tyler says. “What I want to be able to do now is take what the team has already been so successful doing and reach more people. Not just more entrepreneurs, but people who are outside of the tech community, people who are not tapping into this resource, either because they don’t know about it or because there are some preconceived notions of who can and cannot play in this community.”
Tyler’s statement resonates with Karen. “I think there is a lot of baggage around the term ‘innovation,’ that it means only tech or apps,” she says. “If you’re an entrepreneur, you are an innovator, and you belong at Venture Café.
“And anyone can be an entrepreneur,” Tyler agrees, adjusting his signature baseball cap. “Anyone can engage in the innovation community.”
If we can get collaboration across diverse groups, we can create better communities.
In St. Louis, that statement has teeth. Venture Café was getting off the ground at the same time that Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, just a few miles from St. Louis. Some of Venture Café’s first programming were conversations about the shooting.
“Venture Café is not just a tech thing. We have people talking about civic innovation, how to make St. Louis better, how to improve the diversity and racial problems,” Tyler says. “Communities need a place where you can go to have conversations about innovation not just in a biotech sense, but also how to innovate as people.”
“That’s why I want Venture Café Winston-Salem to feel like a living room—where people can come as they are, where everyone from kitchen table CEOs to companies preparing IPOs can connect,” says Karen. “We want to see people from every sector here: whether it’s company leaders or civil servants, local educators or artists, students or mom-and-pop businesses.”
“That’s the full spectrum,” Tyler says. “If we can get collaboration across diverse groups, we can create better communities.”
“It all comes down to the human connection,” Karen says, thinking back to her conversation with Dave earlier in the evening. “It’s different than learning through a webinar or watching Shark Tank. The magic comes back to those moments of being fully human and fully present and being willing to open up a little bit.”
When Tyler leaves, Karen sits at a table close to the bar. Conversations are slowing, and groups are meandering their way to the door. Her cell phone buzzes with an incoming text.
It’s Eric Tomlinson, president of Wake Forest Innovation Quarter, 700 miles away in Winston-Salem.
How goes the Café? Eric asks.
Karen responds, Great! I only have 278 ideas.
Put a notepad under your pillow, Eric suggests.
Are you ready for all of this fun to be in Winston-Salem? Karen asks.
I am, he texts back. Let’s make this one the best launch ever!
Speaking aloud while typing, she says, “We can totally do that.”
Subscribe to Venture Café Winston-Salem to be among the first to get news and updates, including details about the launch of Thursday Night Gatherings here in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.