Katie Stebbins Brings Unique Perspective to State Leadership PositionWhen Katie Stebbins talks with those involved in efforts across the state to create and expand what are coming to be known as ‘entrepreneurial ecosystems,’ she speaks with a good deal of perspective — and experience.
Indeed, the Commonwealth’s recently named assistant secretary for Technology, Innovation & Entrepreneurship, within the Executive Office of Housing & Economic Development, was intricately involved with one such effort as project manager for the Holyoke Innovation District. Meanwhile, she often worked to promote the interests of small-business owners, both individually and collectively, during her 10 years of service to the city of Springfield in planning and economic development.
But Stebbins says she can do more than speak the language of individuals working to inspire and cultivate innovation and entrepreneurship. She’s also lived the life of an entrepreneur trying to get a concept off the ground, and she counts that as perhaps the most valuable experience she takes to her new post every day.
“I have a deep, deep core appreciation for what it takes to be an entrepreneur and just how hard it is,” said Stebbins, who cashed in her municipal retirement account when she turned 40 four years ago to launch Your Friend in Springfield Consulting, a private economic-development and project-management consulting firm that later won the Holyoke contract. “And I think that’s something that’s really helping me in this job — a lot. If I hadn’t had the opportunity to be an entrepreneur, I don’t think I’d be as successful a bureaucrat as I can potentially be right now.”
In her new role with the state, Stebbins is tasked with assisting those providing services and various forms of support to those taking the same kind of leap she did. She works directly with those involved in such endeavors as co-working spaces, incubators, and accelerators, and also with those in higher education, to facilitate technology transfers and encourage and nurture entrepreneurship.
Summing it all up, she said the broad goal involves taking the explosion in innovation and entrepreneurship (much of it technology-related) that has altered the landscape in Boston and Cambridge in dramatic fashion, and essentially making it a statewide phenomenon.
Fulfilling that extensive job description has taken her to communities she’s had to look up on the map, and to initiatives that provide ample evidence that there is entrepreneurial energy on a potentially unprecedented level — and it is evident in virtually every corner of the state.
Over just the past few weeks or so, for example, Stebbins has been in Amesbury on the North Shore to visit that community’s innovation center and meet with the leader of an Israeli company interested in locating in Massachusetts; in Beverly to meet with administrators of something called the North Shore Innoventures Center, a clean-tech and life-sciences incubator space; in Waltham for a visit to the Verizon Innovation Center, which encourages new technologies to help people connect wirelessly; in Boston to meet with 10 leaders of that city’s startup ecosystem; and in Springfield to deliver one of the keynote addresses at Valley Venture Mentors’ first annual Accelerator Awards program (see story, page 20).
She said she came away from each stop smarter than when she arrived, inspired by what she’d seen and heard, and more determined to create more success stories.
For this issue and its focus on entrepreneurship, BusinessWest talked at length with Stebbins about her leadership position, the wave of innovation and entrepreneurship now washing over the Commonwealth, and her efforts to enable more communities and individuals to ride that wave.
State of Things
‘Tech, Trep, Inno.’
It doesn’t say that on Stebbins’ new business card, the one with the state seal in the upper left corner. But that’s the phrase some of her colleagues have started using to sum up what is printed there.
That’s bureaucratic shorthand for ‘technology, entrepreneurship, and innovation,’ and it doesn’t even cover everything in the job description, she said, adding the broad realm known as the ‘creative economy’ also falls under her jurisdiction — and all that definitely wouldn’t fit on the card.
Stebbins said she’s the first administrator to take on that long title — her predecessor, Eric Nakajima, was assistant secretary for Innovation Policy and was not heavily involved with startup ventures — and there is reason for all those additional words.
Indeed, she broadened the job description herself, with the blessing of her new boss, Jay Ashe, secretary of Housing & Economic Development, to reflect her talents and experience.
As she talked about her job description, she returned to that unofficial mission of replicating what’s happened in Boston, Cambridge, and Waltham throughout the state.
In many respects, that work is already well underway, with Springfield evolving into a perfect example of this movement through the work of Valley Venture Mentors and related organizations and facilities, such as TechSpring, devoted to promoting entrepreneurship and mentoring small-business owners. Holyoke is another success story, she went on, adding that there are many others that have mostly been flying under the radar.
“What I found in Holyoke is that innovation is happening everywhere, and entrepreneurship is happening everywhere,” she said. “And innovators and the entrepreneurs are using technology to advance themselves everywhere; part of my job involves developing ways we [the state] can be supportive to these lesser-known ecosystems and help them grow.
“We can tell a better story as a whole state if we know about more of these stories, and not just about what’s happening in the Boston ecosystem,” she went on. “The Boston story is amazing, and it’s one being watched around the world. But to make it a statewide story is even more powerful.”
As mentioned earlier, Stebbins brings a diverse résumé to the job now listed on the top line of that document; over the years, she’s been featured in BusinessWest for involvement in endeavors ranging from revitalization of Main Street in Springfield’s Indian Orchard neighborhood to amateur roller derby (she’s since retired from that sport).
She hasn’t retired from economic-development consulting work, necessarily, but has put it aside to seize an opportunity she said she simply couldn’t pass up — one she considers entrepreneurial in a somewhat non-traditional way, but in keeping with her character.
“I’m disposed to being an entrepreneur — even when I worked for city government, I was always the one inventing the new program or applying for the next grant or thinking up the next idea,” she explained. “So, for me, this is another experience; it’s jumping off another ledge into the unknown. And that’s OK — I don’t have a risk aversion to those kinds of chances.”
She met Ashe, the man who invited her to take this latest leap, while they were both involved with the Working Cities Challenge initiative launched by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston — Stebbins with Holyoke, and Ashe with Chelsea, which he was serving as city manager.
They both led successful efforts to win grants through the program — Stebbins secured $250,000 for the SPARK (Stimulating Potential, Assessing Resource Knowledge) initiative — and, through those experiences, came away impressed with each other’s leadership abilities.
“Jay Ashe, to me, had always been this incredible politician and great city manager whom I just wanted to know more about,” she explained. “The opportunity to learn from him and be mentored by him was a big part of the reason why I couldn’t turn down this opportunity.”
Making It Happen
Stebbins told BusinessWest that there are many aspects to her new leadership position, one she describes as fast-paced.
In many respects, she noted, she acts as a liaison between the state and the business community, keeping the lines of communication between the often-disparate entities open and functioning properly.
“I work to make sure that the private sector feels supported and listened to, and that the government is well-informed of the challenges,” she explained. “Those are two really big worlds, and we don’t necessarily have efficient communication structures between the two.
“Before I got there, Boston had been working really hard on making that happen,” she went on, “and I’m fortunate to continue these efforts.”
As she mentioned, this work is providing her with lessons on state geography and quickly familiarizing her with the Commonwealth’s main transportation arteries, including Routes 495, 95, 2, and 128. More importantly, though, it is introducing her to more of those stories involving entrepreneurial ecosystems and the challenges they face moving forward.
Stebbins said considerable progress has been made in efforts to replicate the success of Boston and Cambridge in other cities and regions within the state, but there is a steep learning curve with such ecosystems, and many of those involved are still getting an education.
“Many mayors and local leaders are still catching up to what a startup economy looks like, what it needs, and how it can be supported,” she noted. “It’s a new model of economic development, and it has a high failure rate. But in that high failure rate, it has enormous amounts of creativity and entrepreneurship that you support, because what we find is that the businesses that might not succeed go right back at it and start something else. So you’re cultivating the person, and not necessarily the business.”
Springfield is moving toward the head of the class with respect to this learning curve, Stebbins told BusinessWest, and its recent successes with building an entrepreneurial infrastructure are being noticed — and recounted — in the State House and elsewhere in Boston.
“Springfield’s moving at a good pace — it’s growing this startup economy at a pace that’s sustainable,” she noted. “It’s building slowly, and it’s scaling at a sustainable rate, which any entrepreneur would do with their own business. When you look around the state, it’s definitely a bright spot.”
But there are many such bright spots, she added quickly, noting that Holyoke is making great strides, as are Worcester, Lowell, Lawrence, New Bedford, Fall River, and others.
Each community is different, but there are many common denominators, said Stebbins, who referred to what she called the ‘continuum,’ the journey a venture — or a group of them — takes from startup stage to being a mature company, and the need to support businesses at each step.
“You have lots of points in between these spaces that need to be supported,” she explained, “so I’m constantly looking for ways we, the state, can support these various stages of the continuum, and make sure that continuum is supported across the state.”
Work in Progress
Stebbins, whose husband is a member of the Mass. Gaming Commission, said she now commutes with him to the Hub a few days each week. Other times, she’ll go in herself, often on a 5:30 a.m. Peter Pan bus.
Through all that traveling, she has a new appreciation for just how long the Mass Pike is.
And while it is not her official job description, she said her role is to shorten the distance to Boston — not literally, and not in terms of highway miles, but in terms of the path to emulating that city’s historic success with stimulating innovation and entrepreneurship.
This job, as she said, is a bit of an entrepreneurial leap, but one that, given her background, she’s certainly not afraid to take.
George O’Brien can be reached at email@example.com