by: Emily O’Neill
Albany. Troy. Hamilton. Syracuse. Ithaca. 5 cities with hundreds of miles driven in between, 8 events spread across 4 weeks and one significant, experiential realization: the entrepreneurial community in Upstate NY is booming.
Truth be told, I’m a newbie- both to entrepreneurship and to the area. Before last July, I had only ever driven through Upstate, unaware that the area would soon become the final destination. By immersing myself in the ecosystem this past month, I learned that between these long stretches of alternating highway and farmland, quaint towns and small cities, are brilliant thinkers and doers whose originality, boldness, and awareness are challenging convention.
After attending Startup Tech Valley, Startup Grind Albany, the New York State Business Plan Competition, the WISE Symposium, Colgate University’s Entrepreneur Weekend kick-off event, Ithaca Venture Community Startup BBQ, and top Syracuse University startup pitches, here are a few of my observations.
Be part of a movement
From the NY State Business Plan Competition, to a small classroom with eight student teams at Syracuse University sharing their business ideas, I was impressed by the motivation these budding entrepreneurs have to be part of something greater than themselves. So many of the pitches I got to see were tied to solving social or cultural problems, and it was obvious that passion came first, and then monetization.
It was an incredibly enlightening experience to see these students have such a strong sense of community, and move toward a trend near and dear to my heart: finding new and compelling communication avenues that bring people closer
Know Who You Are and Go After What You Want
What do confidence, originality, and social consciousness have in common? All are linked to self-awareness. I’ve never heard more of a buzz about discovering and understanding who you are as I have in the past month, nor have I met so many self-aware people in such a short amount of time.
Since self-awareness is a critical part of developing a successful business, it makes sense that this theme would emerge from the month. The best example of this was brought out in a breakout session during the WISE Symposium. A Marketing strategist at the event, connected the concept of knowing who you are and having a dynamic, original brand. “Why is this important? Because you ARE your brand,” she said.
Although I had heard it before, the presentations I saw this month really drove that point home. I also began to look at experience in a different way after the Colgate University event, specifically, how the lack thereof shouldn’t prevent you from being who you want to be, or starting the business you desire.
CEO and Co-Founder of Rent the Runway Jennifer Hyman said that she’s still surprised she runs a tech fashion logistics company, because she had absolutely no experience in tech, fashion, or logistics. “Ignore the rules. Go after the thing you love even without experience,” she encouraged. Buzzfeed President Greg Coleman, took this point a step further, adding that, “having your brain tethered to experience and norms will block you from creating a disruption in the market.”
Hearing this perspective made me realize that lacking experience in certain areas may actually lead to bolder, more creative solutions.
“Never confuse a single defeat with a final defeat” – F. Scott Fitzgerald
Tory Johnson, a successful entrepreneur and NYT best-selling author, gave a powerful personal testimony as the keynote speaker during the WISE Symposium in Syracuse. In describing her battle to lose weight and become her own boss, she provided insight into how to take charge of life, both professionally and personally.
“I find that people tend to overestimate themselves in the short term, but underestimate themselves in the long term,” she told the audience, sharing how she would give herself unrealistic expectations in the short term for weight loss, get frustrated, and give up. It wasn’t until she believed in her long term potential that she was able to slowly, yet effectively lose weight. Relating weight loss to starting a business was a brilliant way to convey a hard-hitting message about putting aside excuses and taking action.
I pondered her statement long after the conference was over. Her statement was not only stunningly accurate, but carried certain implications within it. Perhaps short-term failures are entirely subjective, and in the business world, are mere hindrances we’re throwing in the way of our long term success.
Similar sentiments were echoed during Startup Grind in Albany, when Martin Babinec revealed the hardship his company Trinet experienced during the dot com bust. “It took 20+ years for it to become a billion dollar company,” Martin joked, shedding light on the fact it took time and holding on during the darkest times to eventually see wild success.
Hearing successful entrepreneurs discuss failure is always a confidence boost, because it serves as a reminder that a victory tomorrow could be just as fruitful as a victory ten years down the road.
Although being a newbie, I felt welcomed by the entrepreneurial community at every single event. I met so many open minded, original thinkers and participate in events that broadened my horizons. The energy felt at each event was entirely contagious, and I can honestly say that between the ideas and the people, something special is happening here in Upstate.