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Fueling a Startup Movement in the Breadbasket of the World

During her career in the finance world, Irene Hsieh has worked with a full spectrum of funding — from early stage funding to corporate debt and equity to highly structured asset-backed financings. So when Fresno, the fifth largest city in California, recognized the need for funding to help fuel a movement in startups and the broader business community, Hsieh’s extensive experience proved to be critical. Some context about Fresno: more than 500,000 people live and work in the economic center of California’s sprawling San Joaquin Valley. It’s known as the breadbasket of California because of its agricultural diversity and high production levels. In many ways, Fresno exemplifies agricultural hubs across the country. Although Fresno provides the ideal environment for entrepreneurs seeking to pioneer innovations in agricultural technology, clean tech, and food tech, it’s been difficult to attract the same types of capital investments that readily fly around in Silicon Valley. That’s why Fresno came to FUSE Corps. Though government agencies may have access to funding to take on these kinds of issues, what FUSE adds is the capacity of an executive-level, entrepreneurial changemaker with private-sector experience to the equation, someone who can design a strategy that meets public sector rules and expectations. That, paired with the urgency of a year-long deadline, goes a long way in getting traction. As a FUSE fellow, part of Hsieh’s mandate included finding a way to catalyze public-private financing for the startup community. Startups, especially in regions that need to diversify to stay competitive, have the potential to jumpstart the economy with new jobs, and to revitalize downtowns. UNDERSTANDING THE LANDSCAPE Hsieh’s first task: to understand Fresno. Who were the major players? What were the barriers to entry? What business or cultural shifts would need to happen for an endeavor like this to succeed? Over the course of months, Hsieh met with a cross-section of government, academic, nonprofit, and for-profit stakeholders, including entrepreneurs, funders, and service providers. As a newcomer to Fresno, most of Hsieh’s initial meetings were with individual people and organizations, but once she was able to glean the landscape of local business and political dynamics, she was able to convene different parties she knew could work well together. What’s more, with her deep private-sector experience, she knew the terms and conditions that would attract private-sector attention, and was able to leverage that knowledge. During her fellowship, being part of the Mayor's office helped to open doors to many [caption id="attachment_3977" align="alignright" width="150"] Irene Hsieh[/caption] conversations, and people were willing to respond to Hsieh. FUSE Fellows are positioned to draw the best from both worlds: to external stakeholders, they represent a senior-level executive, which gives them access to people that a typical hired consultant often struggle to secure. And as individual independent consultants, they can maneuver around government more easily and apply private sector thinking and techniques as appropriate. To bring each of the stakeholders into the conversation, Hsieh drew on her experience from both the private and public sectors to convey the value proposition in a way each party could understand. “I tried to ‘walk the talk,’ so people could see my genuine enthusiasm for the work, and how committed I was to make it happen,’” Hsieh says. “I strive to be transparent about how I was doing things, which I have learned is a key ingredient to building trust.” [Read more about these tactics here.] What she found was that, although startups in Fresno had lots of test data attesting to the merits of their ideas and were relatively careful in managing costs, there were real challenges in attracting capital. Value propositions were not being clearly articulated in ways that funders could appreciate. Entrepreneurs needed help with identifying paths to scale up, understanding the financial impact of their business decisions, or developing a structured marketing strategy. DESIGNING SYSTEMS IN PLACE Hsieh decided to focus her efforts on implementing startup models for what she called the Fresno Advantage: manufacturing, technology, agriculture, water, energy, food and related production services. Hsieh then developed a framework based on each stage of a startup and what type of funding would be needed to advance from one phase to the next — from company formation to developing minimum viable products, to scaling up — and then worked with local stakeholders to develop and implement a specific strategy. To get traction, Hsieh did what she thought was most appropriate to be effective, without reinventing the wheel. She identified organizations that already existed, had “good bones,” and exemplary leaders, those with private sector experience. Hsieh also identified the most effective and appropriate tools to fill in gaps. She researched different models that applied to early-stage startups and had a consistent, substantive track record of successfully helping entrepreneurs secure financing. And all along the way, she made her stakeholders partners in the vision and strategy development process, so they understood the whys and hows of her strategy, and to empower them to keep the momentum going after the end of her fellowship. This is where her background in finance was critical. Hsieh, who advises entrepreneurs and teaches workshops that demystify startup financing, has experience across a range of industries including banking, manufacturing, energy, and clean-tech. Her background and expertise helped provide structure and form to Fresno’s nascent entrepreneurial community. BUILDING NETWORKS An example was Hsieh’s work with building out the program at Fresno State’s, Water, Energy, and agriculture Technology (“WET”) Center. The value proposition: to accelerate the commercialization of WET technologies by developing, testing, and scaling, just as any startup in Silicon Valley would. She secured a partnership with Village Capital, a global startup accelerator and seed fund. And to build momentum for the effort, Hsieh helped open up a portal for national interest in Fresno for agricultural technology startups by securing Fresno’s position as one of 16 inaugural cities selected for a national initiative launched by Village Capital, the Kauffman Foundation, the Sorenson Impact Center, and Rise of the Rest (established by Steve Case, AOL co-founder and architect of Present Obama’s Startup America Partnership.)  This offered Fresno a deep network of relevant funders including the government, user groups, and investors. And just as importantly, Hsieh identified key factors that would help build community, develop customers, and secure funding. To help ensure sustainable traction, she was instrumental in elevating the stakeholder relationships she had built to structure the funding proposal that secured $500,000 in funding to cover the cost of launching an ag tech startup accelerator for the WET Center – a federal government innovation grant that Fresno had been unable to secure in prior years. In fact, it was the first startup accelerator in the San Joaquin Valley, and the first in the Central Valley, excluding Sacramento and Salinas. In short, she found a way to tell the story of entrepreneurs in Fresno and the greater San Joaquin Valley to attract funders and fuel the momentum of the local startup and broader business community.

Fueling a Startup Movement in the Breadbasket of the World

Connecting Students to STEM Careers

  The City of San Francisco brought in FUSE Fellow Nicola Clifford to help establish school-to-workforce science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) pipelines for the city of San Francisco, bringing together public, private and nonprofit partners. The outcome: The launch of the STEM Talent Pathway, a collective impact initiative involving private corporations, city government, local universities and the school system that strengthens pathways through formation of cross-sector partnerships, with a focus on creating opportunity for those traditionally underrepresented in STEM fields. As the demand for a workforce educated in science, engineering, technology and math (STEM) continues to grow, the Bay Area, home to some of the most innovative companies in the world, is positioned to lead the way in educating young people for STEM careers, especially young people traditionally underrepresented in STEM fields. But the path between school and jobs is not always clear for students. To that end, Nicola Clifford, a management consultant who has worked across public, private and nonprofit sectors, was hired as a FUSE Fellow in 2015 to work with the Office of the Mayor of San Francisco, the San Francisco Unified School District and the Chamber of Commerce to create a unified, comprehensive plan to connect more students to STEM careers and cement the initiative within the Chamber. During her fellowship, Clifford worked to integrate disparate efforts into a cohesive strategy. To generate ideas for STEM career pathways, she brought together organizations from the public and private sectors, including leaders from the Mayor’s office, SFUSD; private companies like Kaiser Permanente, Salesforce, and Genentech; and local colleges like San Francisco State University. Together they developed goals and created a framework for getting students from high school to STEM careers, and developed and fostered ideas for strengthening pathways from school to jobs. [caption id="attachment_3953" align="alignright" width="150"] Nicola Clifford[/caption] The group also developed and deployed a data system and scorecard for the City, School District, partners in higher education, as well as businesses, to track the outcomes of the group’s work, as students graduate and pursue post-secondary pathways. The collaborative will connect with LinkedIn and Beyond 12, a nonprofit that supports students along their journey after graduation, capturing data on young people’s progress, for the first time shedding light on the critical time period in a youth’s life from the age of 18 to 24. This will allow all collaborative members to gain visibility into the long-term outcomes of their investments and enable the ability to fine tune STEM programming to better support youth based on their identified needs. More than 20 partners from all sectors, including corporate partners like LinkedIn and Zynga as well as organizations like Change Catalyst, which aims to help diversify the technology workforce, joined the collective impact effort. One of the first key partnerships formed was between San Francisco State University (SFSU), the school district, Metro Academies, and the Chamber of Commerce to address the need for better computer science education in high school called the San Francisco Computer Science For All (SF CALL) program. And together with Keith Bowman, Dean of the College of  Science and Engineering at SFSU, they won a National Science Foundation grant to create the pathways from high school, to college and STEM careers. Funds from the grant will work to improve STEM interest in high school students, including:

  1. Supporting curriculum development for high school computer science classes.
  2. Bringing the Metro Academies (community colleges) into high schools, focusing on first-generation college students, to get high schoolers interested and engaged in computer science.
  3. Teacher training for computer science teachers, for which the district has been historically lacking.
  4. Working to include computer science as an acceptable science requirement for high school graduation.
The STEM Talent Pathway initiative is now established in the Chamber of Commerce, and is co-chaired by Genentech and San Francisco State, where Clifford believes the work will continue, as private and public sector partnerships connect to help build a bridge for students to STEM careers in their own backyard. In the long term, Clifford and the team are counting on the Talent Pathway becoming ingrained in the Chamber of Commerce’s foundation as a key area of focus. She believes that having the project live in the private sector is critical, as there is a great need to continue to bring in business perspective as these pipeline programs continue to grow.  

Connecting Students to STEM Careers