- Oliver Parini
- George Schildge
Michael Jager and Giovanna Di Paola Jager have spent much of their professional careers thinking about and designing successful brands. So when the creative minds behind such names as Burton, Seventh Generation, Nike, Pepsi and Patagonia say that Vermont has reached a "defining moment" in the ongoing evolution of its brand, it's worth paying attention.
"The Vermont brand is freedom of thought. Its nature is radical free thinkers, whether it's Ethan Allen or Jake Burton Carpenter, Ben [Cohen] and Jerry [Greenfield] or Alan Newman," says Michael Jager. "It doesn't matter whether it comes in the form of technology or a maker space or in cheese. So we need to get really clear on that locally, as a state, and understand we're in a global context."
That's why the Jagers, two of the three principals at the former Jager Di Paola Kemp Design firm and now with Solidarity of Unbridled Labour, are lending their expertise — and their coworking space, Karma Bird House — to offering monthly forums where Vermont entrepreneurs can meet and exchange ideas.
The project, called Startup Grind Burlington, is just the latest chapter of a global startup community funded by Google for Entrepreneurs and designed to "educate, inspire and connect entrepreneurs" in collaborative, noncompetitive settings. Started in 2010 as a Silicon Valley tech meet-up, Startup Grind has since opened chapters in 150 cities in 65 countries.
Despite being funded and supported by the global tech behemoth, Startup Grind Burlington will be largely organized and run locally, with the primary goal of tapping the experience and wisdom of Vermonters who've launched successful enterprises. Virtually all money raised by its events will be reinvested locally.
Leading the effort is chapter director George Schildge. The Plattsburgh, N.Y., native is the founder and CEO of Matrix Marketing Group of Denver, Colo. Schildge spent 26 years in Colorado as a "serial entrepreneur" helping small startups get off the ground. A few months ago, he relocated to Vermont and opened an office in the Karma Bird House at 47 Maple Street.
"What really attracted me was the amount of diversity inside the building, all the way from a tattoo shop to some software companies," Schildge says. "I need to be in that type of environment where I can cross-pollinate and talk to people."
With the support of the Jagers, Schildge plans to hold monthly events — meet-ups, "fireside" chats, a speaker series — where Vermont entrepreneurs can share stories of success and failure.
Schildge, who's interviewed dozens of local businesspeople since his arrival, acknowledges that Vermont already has plenty of meet-up groups and networking events. Nonetheless, he's found the startup community to be fragmented, with hit-or-miss events featuring a common group of attendees, he says.
By contrast, Schildge plans to make his monthly events opportunities to learn from and interact with more seasoned businesspeople. The first one, scheduled for Tuesday, May 19, at Karma Bird House, will feature a conversation with Liz Robert, owner and CEO of Terry Bicycles and former CEO and CFO of the Vermont Teddy Bear Company.
Jager emphasizes that these monthly events will not include pitch competitions where startups try to woo venture capital from angel investors. Instead, they'll be about creating a "safe place" where entrepreneurs are comfortable asking questions.
"Coworking is a good idea because there's a lot of intersections that happen. Karma Bird House was certainly born of that idea of coworking environments," Jager explains. "But if you can do a bit of regularly programmed 'co-thinking,' that's really what this is all about."
Jager also envisions Startup Grind as a venue where ideas flow both ways, and older businesspeople can tap the youthful enthusiasm of millennials.
"There are young people doing radically unique things with technology and other ideas that are really amazing. Their naïveté is incredibly beautiful," he says. "They're super-smart at what they do, but they haven't been tainted by what people tell them they can't do."
Asked how Startup Grind Burlington will look in a year's time, neither Schildge nor Jager offers much specificity. Brands, notes Jager, "are always evolving and changing because they're organic things." Startup Grind will likewise evolve organically — with local direction and a global perspective.