When Charlie Brock stepped down as President and CEO of Launch Tennessee, many wondered who would succeed him. The leader of the publicly-funded entrepreneur support non-profit had to be able to interact with an extremely diverse group of stakeholders — early-stage entrepreneurs, corporate executives, public officials and politicians, and any angel and venture investors engaged in the state of Tennessee.
Brock served as President for six years, a time period in which LaunchTN launched a social impact fund, grew its 36|86 Entrepreneurship Festival to more than 1,200 attendees this year, and helped Tennessee startups attract 65 percent more early-stage capital on average and generate over 2,000 new jobs.
Last month, LaunchTN announced the appointment of business leader Margaret Dolan as the new head of the organization, and she has bright views on the future of startups in Tennessee and in the South.
In addition to her career experience as an executive in finance and healthcare, Dolan has been involved in business-promoting activities for much of her adult life. She served on the board of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce and chaired the board of the Tennessee Business Roundtable.
“When I saw that Charlie was leaving Launch Tennessee I thought it was an opportunity where I could add value by bringing all of those experiences together, to be able to move entrepreneurs forward in realizing their dream of building a solid new business,” Dolan says.
Before she begins her official tenure at the end of this month, Dolan spoke to Hypepotamus in a phone interview about what Launch Tennessee has done successfully thus far, some of her initial thoughts on what she’ll focus on, and why the organization is important to the growth of the south’s startup ecosystem at large.
What do you think that LaunchTN has done well over the last few years?
Well, a couple of things stand out for me. Number one, they’ve made good use of the capital that was available to be invested in early-stage companies. That’s given LaunchTN a platform from which to leap in order to bring additional capital to the state.
I also am very impressed with the growth of the 36|86 entrepreneur conference, which this year had over 1,200 participants from 33 states. I’m very excited about the potential for being able to make this a large opportunity for entrepreneurs, as well as those who are seeking to make early-stage investments, to come together and learn about one another and grow the ecosystem around the entire region.
Of course, there’s always room for improvement. What do you think you could improve on over the next years?
I think that it’s a matter of reaching scale. What we talk to entrepreneurs about is getting to that point where you are you can actually scale your operation. I think that it’s additional growth of 36|86, bringing additional capital into entrepreneurs in Tennessee, maintaining a robust and strong and beneficial environment for all kinds of businesses in Tennessee.
I’m taking over an organization that extraordinarily strong. Charlie’s built a terrific team of professionals that are in place, we’ve got a great board of directors. One of the things that I’m planning to do very early is to reach out to our stakeholders across the state, and probably beyond, to determine what more we can do to be supportive of entrepreneurs and how we can partner with our network of entrepreneur centers and business incubators.
You mentioned a strategic plan. How does that help shape LaunchTN’s actions on a high-level?
There are five pillars of that work. One is bringing in additional capital, making that capital available, connecting people who have capital to invest with the businesses that can put that capital to work. Then, giving market access to our entrepreneurs and innovators, connecting them with others with whom they can become affiliated as part of their supply chain or their distribution network or developing new partners.
Talent is a big one. We’ve got jobs that need to be filled and we need to quickly be bringing talent online to allow companies to prosper, especially in the tech world. Commercialization is where we aim to work with people who are making discoveries and innovations, to bring those products to the commercial market and monetize them. And then, as I mentioned earlier, maintaining a policy environment where businesses can thrive.
Speaking of that policy environment, what are some state and local initiatives that Launch Tennessee advocates for?
One of the things that’s been in place over the last couple of years has been a tax credit that’s available for early-stage investors to get a tax credit against what’s called the Hall Tax. That tax is being eliminated, and so we’ll want to be helpful in thinking about how we can come up with a different incentive that allows investors to not only reap a return from the investments that they make in early-stage entrepreneurs, but augment those economics by getting a tax credit or some other incentive.
One of the really big ones on the horizon is how we can work with Opportunity Zones — there are 125 opportunities zones in the state of Tennessee. Number one, we have to wait for the regulations to come out so we understand the rules completely. Then, how do we connect investors with those Zones and encourage entrepreneurship and innovation efforts that will revitalize those economies?
Does Launch Tennessee ever advocate on behalf of or against any social policies?
I think from an overall business perspective — and this is just me, this is Margaret, not LaunchTN — but it’s been my experience in other organizations with whom I’ve been involved, that many of those social-type issues that have come up in the past have been damaging to the business climate overall.
Do you foresee the organization under your leadership taking a position on certain social policies?
I would have to consult with the board. At the organizations I have been involved with in the past, we take it very seriously when they take a position one way or another on specific items that might be in front of the state legislature or a city. I would want to make sure that the Board and the CEO make a decision together about the wisdom of taking up an advocacy position one way or another on something that specific.
LaunchTN just made the first investment out of it’s relatively-new social impact fund. Does the organizations have any funds beyond that one? Do you foresee opening up additional investment capital?
There’s one called the Incite Fund and that one is fully invested right now. So the available capital is currently from the Impact Fund. It’s interesting and very exciting to me that LaunchTN is interested in exploring early-stage companies that are actually developing products or services that can have a positive impact.
I think that we’ll concurrently be seeking out opportunities to create other funds. I do think that, as I mentioned earlier, this Opportunity Zone concept — which right now just has a federal tax implication that helps with the return on investment — it would be interesting to see how we might integrate that opportunity with the phaseout of the Hall tax, to have both a state impact as well as the federal impact on the investor.
Taking a regional perspective, how do you see the organization supporting entrepreneurs across the Southeast? Do you see any regional focuses where organizations can align?
None of us, as individuals or cities or states, or even as countries, operate in isolation. There’s a huge interdependency of our economies and a fluidity of movement of people. When there is a bigger critical mass of entrepreneurial activity and innovation, that in itself will attract capital. So the more we can grow, not just in Tennessee, but in all the surrounding states and the region, the more capital will come to all of us. It’s that classic ‘a rising tide floats all boats.’
Photos provided by LaunchTN. This interview has been condensed for clarity.