Home Posts tagged Entrepreneurship
Daily News

HOLYOKE — Ten early-stage businesses and nonprofits have been selected to participate in the Entrepreneurship for All (EforAll) Winter Accelerator program in Holyoke. This cohort was evaluated by more than 50 community leaders, EforAll Mentors, industry experts, and entrepreneurs through a rigorous application review and interview process. The startups selected represent both products and services from a variety of industries.

This year-long program is comprised of 70% of the startups having at least one founder of color and 80% of the startups having at least one female founder. This is representative of EforAll’s mission to accelerate economic development and social impact through inclusive entrepreneurship in gateway communities. As part of the 2020 cohort, entrepreneurs will have access to expert mentorship, tailored curriculum, co-working space, and opportunities to win prize money.

The finalists are:

  • Liam Malone, Holyoke: Greens for Good. Aims to open a year-round farmers market and aquaponic production facility to provide the absolute best in locally sourced food at affordable prices for all of Holyoke and beyond.
  • Carlos Rosario, Springfield: Rosario Asphalt Company. Specializing in residential asphalt and paving services
  • Dioni Soriano & Nayroby Rosa, Holyoke: Soriano Baseball Academy. A baseball camp that provides one-on-one coaching and guidance to youth ages 8 to 16, creating a safe environment where they can practice their skills and improve them all year around.
  • Erika Matos, Indian Orchard: Top Flight Nutrition. A nutrition club recently opened in Holyoke at 594 Dwight Street that offers fitness classes, healthy shakes and smoothies, and health-related programming for the community. 
  • Jessica Rivera, Chicopee: Bet on Our Youth Travel Camp. Bet on Our Youth is centered toward providing services and opportunities to enlighten them through positive experiences.
  • Heather Labonte, Granby: The Estate. An outdoor event venue for weddings, corporate parties, showers and special occasions. 
  • Nicole Ortiz, Chicopee: Crave Food Truck. This HCC Culinary Student plans to open a food truck that has a variety of food with an emphasis on local ingredients and breakfast.
  • Sandra Rubio, Easthampton: Totally Baked 413. This Holyoke-based startup offers custom 3-d, gourmet cakes for every, and any occasion, mouth melting pastries, and fresh baked goods.
  • Jessika Rozki, Springfield: Rozki Rides. Children transportation services providing safe and reliable transportation for working parents. 
  • Sarah Kukla, Holyoke: Cupcakes, Pupcakes & More. Baked goods and delicious sweets for both humans and dogs.
Women of Impact 2019

Managing Director, Golden Seeds

This Investor and Mentor Is Making a Difference within the Entrepreneurship Ecosystem

Katherine Putnam was a history major in college, and she certainly knows her stuff.

While she really likes European history, she knows all about this country — and this region — as well. She knows, for example, about the very rich tradition of entrepreneurship in Western Mass., and what it meant for the development of individual cities and towns.

“From the 1880s to the turn of the century, Holyoke had more millionaires per capita than any city in the country,” she said, referring to the dozens of mill owners living in the Paper City. “There are two McKim, Mead & White buildings in Holyoke; there was so much money, they were paying for world-renowned architects to come in and design their buildings. And it was the same in Springfield.

“When you read your history books, for 100 to 140 years, this region was a hotbed for entrepreneurial activity,” she went on. “But that hasn’t been true for 50 years.”

Putnam knows that a return to those glory days is certainly not likely, given how global the economy has become and the development of innovation and entrepreneurship hubs such as Silicon Valley, Cambridge, and the Research Triangle. But she firmly believes that the region can once again be a thriving center of new business ventures, and she’s playing an active part in such efforts as managing director of Golden Seeds — a national investment firm that focuses on early-stage businesses that have women in management and leadership roles — and in a host of other roles within this region’s entrepreneurship ecosystem.

As an investor and a mentor — the two primary roles she plays — she has a number of goals and missions. They include sparking levels of entrepreneurial activity reminiscent of those from generations ago, and also leveling what is currently a very uneven field when it comes to which demographic groups receive venture capital and mentoring, and which ones don’t.

“We have two main problems overall. We have less money flowing to diverse teams, and there’s less advice flowing to diverse teams. And my mission right now is to try to change that.”

“We have two main problems overall,” she noted. “We have less money flowing to diverse teams, and there’s less advice flowing to diverse teams. And my mission right now is to try to change that.”

Putnam brings an intriguing background, a wide variety of experience, and a host of skills sets to this mission and her various roles within the region’s growing entrepreneurship infrastructure.

Indeed, she started her career in the banking industry before shifting to corporate treasury work and then deciding she wanted to run her own company. In 1996, she put together a group of angel investors and purchased Package Machinery. Before selling it 20 years later, the company had become a technology leader in wrapping machinery for consumer-product manufacturers.

Today, while investing in some developing ventures, she spends most of her waking hours advising and mentoring entrepreneurs, especially women.

Meanwhile, she’s working diligently to create strategies for helping women and minorities crash through the many barriers facing them as entrepreneurs.

“Statistics tell us that 70% of angel money and about 95% of VC [venture capital] money go to teams that are all white males,” she told BusinessWest. “I love white males — I had one as a father, I have one as a son, and I have one as a husband — but that’s not equitable. What are the barriers that are keeping women and minorities — diverse teams — from getting more money?”

There’s no quick or easy answer to that question, she went on, adding that she and some colleagues are hard at work trying to not only find some answers, but develop strategies for somehow changing this equation.

Ali Usman, founder and president of PixelEdge and a fellow investor and mentor of entrepreneurs, summed up Putnam’s work in this region while nominating her for the Woman of Impact award.

“Kate should win this award for her consistent commitment to the entrepreneurial ecosystem,” he wrote. “Kate is not just involved with one project or company at a time. She is constantly using her knowledge and expertise to help others day after day, week after week. Currently, she serves on three different boards, is a managing director of an angel-investment group, and, in her spare time, manages to mentor entrepreneurs through several different programs.”

Actually, mentoring is much more than a ‘spare-time’ pursuit. For Putnam, it’s her passion, and that’s one of many reasons why she’s a Woman of Impact.

Ventures and Adventures

When asked to summarize the best advice she gives to entrepreneurs at all levels, Putnam didn’t hesitate and recited the lines as if she’s uttered them hundreds of time, which she is undoubtedly has.

“Have lots of conversations with your customers and your prospective customers,” she said. “Most people come into this thinking, ‘I have this really cool idea — the world must want this.’ And then they get out there and they realize that the world does not feel enough pain to switch from however they’re solving that problem now.

Kate Putnam says it’s her mission to level the playing field when it comes it diverse groups and their efforts to gain capital and mentors.

“If you get out and make a lot of your widgets without figuring that out, you’ve wasted a lot of time and money,” she went on. “Whether it’s something really cool that you’ve developed in some esoteric lab at UMass at the Institute for Applied Life Sciences or you did it in your garage, you have to figure out who is feeling enough pain to change however they’re doing it now and adopt whatever it is that you’ve developed.

In short, she explained, people are more motivated by pain then they are by gain. “People will go a lot further to avoid losing $10 than they will to gain $10, and so I tend to ask people to think in terms of whether they’re solving someone’s pain and if people will be uncomfortable enough in their pain to switch.”

Steve Jobs was famous for not asking customers what they wanted and for actually saying that “customers don’t know what they want if they haven’t seen it before,” she noted, but he is certainly the exception to the rule with development of such products as the iPhone, and young entrepreneurs would be wise not to emulate that approach.

Passing on such advice has become a career of sorts for Putnam — or the latest career, to be more precise. Indeed, as noted earlier, she’s had several, which in sum have given her exposure to business and entrepreneurship from all angles.

That includes the finance, or funding, side, and also the entrepreneurial, risk-taking side with Package Machinery, which was struggling when she took it over, and she guided it back to prominence within that specific manufacturing niche, increasing machine sales by more than 300%.

In this, her latest career, she spends a good deal of time on the road — she’s put 40,000 miles on her car over the past 15 months by her reckoning — working in a variety of settings and with companies of all shapes and sizes.

Currently, she’s mentoring a few entrepreneurs involved in a program called I-Corps, a National Science Foundation initiative to increase the economic impact of research the agency funds.

“It uses the Lean LaunchPad model for getting people to identify a problem to solve,” she explained, adding that she’s mentoring teams behind ventures in Connecticut and Vermont. “You’re a scientist, and you’ve invented something cool; now you have to figure out if anybody wants it.”

She’s also involved with MIT and its Venture Mentoring Service, and also Valley Venture Mentors in Springfield, which she has served in a number of capacities, including entrepreneur in residence for its most recent accelerator class, as well as Greentown Labs. She’s a founding member of Women Innovators & Trailblazers, which strives to make Western Mass. a more vibrant hub for women innovators and entrepreneurs, and also serves as an instructor with RiseUp Springfield, a seven-month, intensive, hands-on program for established small business owners created through a collaboration between the city of Springfield, the Assoc. of Black Business and Professionals, and the Springfield Regional Chamber.

All this keeps her quite busy and her car’s odometer spinning, but it’s work she’s passionate about.

That’s especially true when it comes to mentoring women, leveling the playing field when it comes to capital and opportunities for women and minorities, and launching — and keeping — more businesses in the 413.

Capital Ideas

And the playing field is certainly not level, she told BusinessWest, citing those statistics concerning venture capital awarded to teams comprised of white men given to white men and noting that, by and large, the investing community has historically treated women differently than men, holding them to what amounts to higher standards.

When asked to elaborate and offer a tutorial, she talked about questions asked by potential investors and some of the categories they fall into, including ‘promotion’ and ‘prevention.’

“Most people come into this thinking, ‘I have this really cool idea — the world must want this. And then, they get out there and they realize that the world does not feel enough pain to switch from however they were solving that problem now.”

“A promotion question would be ‘how big would the market for your product possibly be globally?’” she explained. “And a prevention question would be ‘how are you going to reach your first $1 million in sales — how are you going to do that?’”

Prevention questions are associated with raising less money, she went on, adding that the more of these questions an individual or team gets, the less money they are likely to raise.

“We know that women get more prevention questions than promotion questions,” she went on, adding that she can’t get inside the heads of investors and come up with an answer to why this is the case, but she had some guesses.

“The sense of it is that the general theory is that women are less competent than men,” she said. “It’s also true that most of the people who are doing the investing are white men, and that they prefer to invest in and mentor people who look like them.”

Diversity refers to geography as well, she said, adding that there is less money flowing to people in more remote areas because, well, there is simply less money there, from the seed (friends and family) level on up to the VC rounds.

“If you’re in Wellesley and you want to raise seed money, it’s a lot easier there than if you’re in Holyoke,” she explained. “In Wellesley, you’ve got friends and family who are likely to have money, and in Holyoke, you’re less likely to have that.”

As she mentioned, changing this equation has become a mission, and she’s carrying it out in a number of ways, from creation of Golden Seeds to involvement with groups like VVM and SPARK EforAll Holyoke, to mentoring in places like Springfield, Holyoke, and other communities in this region.

These are cities, which, as she noted at the top, have a rich history of innovation, entrepreneurship, and risk-taking that is, unfortunately, referred to mostly in the past tense.

“That kind of attitude toward building it, and taking the risk, and making that investment has been gone from this region for quite a while,” she noted. “And it’s tough to recreate it; it’s a real challenge.”

She acknowledged that the needle is moving in the right direction when it comes to entrepreneurial energy and startups taking flight, but not enough movement to suit her.

“I’m impatient — I want to see more activity, sooner, faster, all those things,” she said, adding that the two main ingredients needed are capital and mentoring. There is some of each, but there needs to be more if companies are going to get off the ground and then remain in the 413 rather than packing up and going to where the capital is, be it Cambridge, Boston, San Francisco, or somewhere else.

In Good Company

Reflecting on what has happened in recent years when it comes entrepreneurial activity in this region and efforts to level an uneven laying field when it comes to opportunities and capital for women and minorities, Putnam said there has indeed been change.

Just not enough of it.

As she said, it is her mission to create more of it. That’s the latest focal point of a career that has included success in business and a host of initiatives to help others enjoy some of that same success.

And it’s just another way in which she’s certainly a Woman of Impact.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story

Getting a Boost

Lisa Papademetriou, founder of Bookflow

The name tells a good part of the story. Launch413, one of the latest additions to the region’s entrepreneurship ecosystem, exists to help developing companies get to the proverbial next level. It does so by linking entrepreneurs with seasoned experts in everything from marketing to supply-chain dynamics, thus enabling them to soar higher — and, hopefully, within the 413.

Lisa Papademetriou is a wordsmith.

She’s a novelist specializing in young-adult fiction — she’s written, among other things, the New York Times bestseller Middle School: My Brother is a Big, Fat Liar — but she’s also been an editor at Harper Collins, teaches writing, and is a sought-after public speaker.

But she also knows how to use numbers effectively, especially when it comes to the business she’s trying to take to the next level.

She knows, for example, that publishing is a $77 billion business. Further, she knows that something like 1.2 million different books are published each year, many of them self-published. And perhaps most importantly, especially when it comes to her venture, she knows that perhaps one in 10 people who start writing a book will actually finish it.

With all these numbers in mind, Papademetriou created Bookflow, a cloud-based tool for writers that helps them become more creative — and more productive.

“It helps writers build skills, with a framework that’s built out to support specifically long-form fiction,” she explained. “It provides information on structure and checklists to help people keep their scenes on track and accomplish what they want to do.

“It helps build motivation with Fitbit-style trackers on both a daily and a project level so that you have a certain amount of accountability,” she went on. “And it also offers rewards.”

Those aforementioned numbers also help explain why she enlisted the help of Launch413, an initiative, but also a business itself, that has become an intriguing addition to the region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.

In a nutshell, Launch413 helps take startups to their first $10 million in revenue, said Paul Silva, co-founder along with Rick Plaut. Silva is perhaps best known for his work to create Valley Venture Mentors, but he now wears many hats, as we’ll see, including president of River Valley Investors, an angel-investor network.

Paul Silva says Launch413 was created to address a gap in the region’s entrepreneurship ecosystem — specifically companies ready for venture funding.

When wearing his Launch413 hat, he and other members of the team help people like Papademetriou take an existing venture to that proverbial next level through guidance and consultation on matters ranging from sales to technology to supply chain.

This consultation is provided in exchange for what amounts to royalties in the business — not an equity stake — payable down the road.

That’s how Launch 413 does what it does. As for the why, that’s summed up in this simple line from its website: “we believe there is no better way to create prosperity than to help entrepreneurs turn their crazy dreams into innovation and jobs for the future.”

For Papademetriou, her crazy dream is what she calls “the world’s first online writing mentor,” which provides an organizational framework for helping writers stay on point, on target, and finish what they start.

She told BusinessWest she clearly understood what the market wanted and needed, but she didn’t know everything she needed to know to convert the service, currently available for free, into a successful business.

So, with some urging from Silva, she enlisted help from Launch413 — specifically, from people like Eric Ashman, CFO of the Huffington Post and serial entrepreneur; Meghan Fitzgerald Henshon, global brand manager for Procter & Gamble; and Randy Krotowski, CIO of a Fortune 100 company with vast experience in negotiating joint ventures and acquisitions.

Consultation from such individuals would otherwise be prohibitively expensive, if you actually get them on the phone, said Papademetriou, adding that Launch 413 provides such access, and she is taking full advantage.

Thus, her story — that’s an industry term — provides a perfect example of how Launch413 is becoming an important addition to the entrepreneurial landscape. And there are many others, such as Wooftrax, maker of the Walk for a Dog app, and a company with this marketing slogan: “Don’t just take your dog for a walk … take your walk for a dog.”

Indeed, this venture, launched by Doug Hexter, enables users to raise funds for an animal organization every time they take their dog for a walk.

Revenues are generated from advertisements, said Hexter, adding that some 50 million walks have been taken since it was launched two years ago, benefiting 9,000 animal charities.

“Launch413 is helping take things to the next level,” Hexter told BusinessWest. “They’ve been great in, well, helping us focus on what makes sense to focus on.”

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an indepth look at Launch413 and how it is becoming an exciting new plot line in ongoing efforts to foster entrepreneurship in the region and create more jobs and vibrancy in the process.

A Real Page Turner

When she was teaching, Papademetriou said, she was struck by just how many students had a good idea for a story and the motivation to write it, but had trouble organizing it into a cohesive manuscript and identifying the objectives they were supposed to accomplish with their work.

“On the sentence level, their stuff was great,” she told BusinessWest. “On the big-picture level, on the strategy level … not so much. They had no trouble with descriptions or even creating vibrant characters, but they couldn’t make a whole story, and they couldn’t get to the end.”

Bookflow was created to help them get to the end, and in that respect, it is much like Launch413 itself; both concepts are focused on the big picture, strategy, and putting the pieces together — for a specific venture, but also the region itself.

“We believe there is no better way to create prosperity than to help entrepreneurs turn their crazy dreams into innovation and jobs for the future.”

As Silva explained, River Valley Investors (RVI) has long been interested in investing in more local companies, but it has struggled to identify enough local ventures that were far enough along for investors to feel comfortable taking on the risk.

“When VVM took off, we had hope that we could invest in VVM graduates,” he went on, referring to the agency’s accelerator program. “And we invested in one or two of them, but VVM has graduated some 200 companies. So there was a gap between what VVM was graduating and what RVI could comfortably invest in.”

Launch413 was created to help close that gap.

Elaborating, Silva said most of the companies VVM has been graduating are led by first-time founders.

“And these first-time founders have to make all the first-timer mistakes — those are the rules,” he explained. “And we don’t want to invest in someone who we know is going to make all those first-timer mistakes, because they’re going to make them on our dime.”

Meanwhile, such first-time founders generally don’t have the money needed to hire people have essentially been there and done that, he went on, thus creating a frustrating catch-22 — one that needed to be addressed.

Launch413 was born from that frustration, said Silva, adding that it provides entrepreneurs with access to people who have been there and done that and are willing to share their wealth of knowledge for a share of the profits down the road.

Doug Hexter, founder of Wooftrax, is one of many entrepreneurs who have received consultation from those behind Launch413.

“I realized that I knew a bunch of crazy-smart people who don’t need to get paid today,” Silva said. “They can take a risk and help the companies, and thus help solve the chicken-and-egg problem.”

The operating model for Launch413, he went on, is to invest in a company by providing ongoing consultative support in the crafting of a strategic plan, focusing on the areas where the entrepreneur or group needs technical assistance to get from here to there.

“We’ll say, ‘OK, what are your biggest challenges?’” he explained. “‘Do you need to redo your branding or build a robust marketing strategy? The former global brand manager for Procter & Gamble is going to meet with you every two weeks to get that done. You need to get your financials straightened out before you meet with venture capitalists? This is the founding CFO of the Huffington Post; he’s going to meet with you every two weeks until you’re done and ready, and if you impress him, he’ll introduce you to his VC friends.’

“And so on and so forth,” he continued, adding that Launch413 has more than dozen such consultants ready to assist. And when companies being helped then come to RVI and other groups in search of capital, that team behind them certainly helps eliminate some of the risk that might be involved.

This support comes in exchange for royalties, or a percentage of top-line revenue, a few years down the road and until the company reaches $10 million in revenues, said Silva, adding that this overall model is somewhat unique. He’s seen it done with one-offs and unicorn companies (revenues in excess of $1 billion) but not in a structured format like this.

As for that royalties structure, he believes it works more effectively than taking an equity stake, something most entrepreneurs don’t want to do anyway.

“Our incentive is not to encourage the entrepreneur to sell the company,” he said, adding that ‘413’ exists in the name as a nod toward the goal of creating more businesses for this region. “By taking a royalty, our only incentive is to help the entrepreneur earn money. If the entrepreneur wants to sell the company, they can certainly do that, and we’ll get paid then. But they know our only incentive is to make the company more successful.”

The Plot Thickens

Returning to the many motivations for Bookflow, Papademetriou noted that, when she encountered students who had trouble getting to the finish line, she would usually recommend that they read books on writing to find some inspiration and a roadmap.

“Invariably, they would try to apply everything all at once and get frustrated,” she said. “And I kept thinking, ‘if I can just be there with them as they’re trying to compose, encouraging them or reminding them gently that this scene needs to have an emotional transition, or some technical thing, it would be a lot easier.’”

Through Bookflow, that’s essentially what she does — she’s there with the writer as he or she continues their journey to the final page. “You can’t always be sitting next to someone as they’re composing,” she explained, “but you can offer a piece of software that serves as that kind of mentor.”

In a way, Launch413 provides a similar service to the entrepreneur — helping that individual or team get to where they want to go.

“As someone who has been in publishing and has been a novelist, I didn’t necessarily have contacts with the kind of business background that one needs if one wants to launch a product and create a business,” said Papademetriou. “I knew what the consumer needed, but I didn’t know how to conceive a business strategy. I didn’t know how to craft an investor pitch, and I didn’t even really know how to create a cohesive marketing plan. And Launch 413 has been instrumental in helping me with all of those things.”

Hexter tells a similar story with Wooftrax, adding that the company was already established when it became involved with Launch413, which has been instrumental in helping it scale up.

“It’s a process,” he said. “They’ve been helping us in identifying strategies to get to that next step, partnerships, helping us in the decision process, and more.

“They have expertise in the areas that we need help in, without actually having those people on staff, which we couldn’t afford to do,” he went on. “And they’ve helped us make connections — connections in the community, connections to other entrepreneurs, connections to venture-capital people, and other people doing interesting startup activity — and all those connections become useful in the short term and the medium term.”

“On the sentence level, their stuff was great. On the big-picture level, on the strategy level … not so much. They had no trouble with descriptions or even creating vibrant characters, but they couldn’t make a whole story, and they couldn’t get to the end.”

As for the consultants working with the entrepreneurs, each one brings vast levels of experience and success to the equation. In Fitzgerald Henshon’s case, that experience comes in the realms of marketing and brand building, areas she said many business owners don’t fully understand.

“I do a lot of educating entrepreneurs on just what marketing is strategically,” she explained. “I think people think of marketing as websites and ads, but it’s what goes into that — that knowledge of the consumer and the benefits the business is trying to bring to the consumer — and then how to communicate it in a way that’s really authentic to the brand that they’re creating.”

She said there are many types of consumers, obviously, and ventures like those now being assisted by Launch413 must identify their specific consumers and craft a message intended specifically for them.

For that reason, the work she does with these entrepreneurs is very hands-on, it involves imparting decades of acquired knowledge, and it’s quite rewarding on a number of levels.

“I really love it,” she said. “I’m impressed with the quality of the entrepreneurs and the ideas. And I think that this [Launch413] is a marriage that works very well. You’re helping meet specific needs, so it seems like every time you meet, something concrete is being tackled.

“It’s not advice and then ‘take it or leave it,’” she went on. “It’s something really tangible to be worked on, and then we roll up our sleeves and get it done. We don’t offer a few ideas in a presentation, for example; we go through it slide by slide.”

By the Book

Papademetriou isn’t sure how her latest work — meaning Bookflow, not the next young-adult novel to hit the shelves — will end or even how the next chapter will develop.

She’s confident, though, that this will be the story of a new and intriguing product that will meet a critical need — helping all those writers who start a book and never finish it, for example — in a meaningful and profitable way.

It’s a story with an intriguing cast of characters and several potential plot twists, all resulting from the help of Launch413.

And, as all those who spoke with BusinessWest noted, it’s a story that needs to be written many more times as the region seeks to grow and add more jobs.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Hampshire County

World Changers

Phil Weilerstein

Phil Weilerstein wants to help innovators move their ideas into practice — and perhaps change the world.

Katya Cherukumilli has a big idea with potentially bigger impact.

Her nonprofit startup, Seattle-based Global Water Labs, is developing a scalable and affordable fluoride-removal technology that aims to reduce the incidence of irreversible diseases as a result of consuming excess naturally occurring fluoride in groundwater — a risk common to some 200 million people worldwide.

She credits Hadley-based VentureWell with helping her move her big idea beyond the headspace into something tangible and, hopefully, impactful.

“One of the things VentureWell helped me realize was that the business model has to be really different for the R&D pilot phase and the scale-up and commercialization and expansion phase,” she said. “In a sense, I pivoted from how I was thinking about the fundraising for the initial pilot phase to thinking about who the different donors and funding agencies would be for the scale-up phase.”

VentureWell, which has been promoting technology entrepreneurship — especially in the sciences, medicine, and the environment — for almost a quarter-century, was a key reason Cherukumilli was able to even reach the pilot stage, thanks to $25,000 grant, but also connections to additional opportunities and networks she otherwise wouldn’t have access to.

“One of the things VentureWell helped me realize was that the business model has to be really different for the R&D pilot phase and the scale-up and commercialization and expansion phase.”

Myriam Sbeiti tells a similar story. While at New York University, she co-founded Sunthetics, which has developed a solar-powered device to use during the chemical-input phase of nylon production, helping eliminate greenhouse-gas emissions from the manufacturing process. But she quickly learned that conceiving a way to solve a worldwide problem and actually solving it are two different things.

“I’ve learned that entrepreneurship is finding solutions to completely new problems every day. I’ve been able to develop many new competencies from scratch — from negotiating contracts to navigating regulatory hurdles,” she said. “VentureWell has been a catalyst for our development. They provide a healthy balance of business mentoring and support while also keeping in mind the feasibility and viability of a venture’s technology.”

It’s that gap — between good ideas and viable businesses — that VentureWell has been trying to bridge since its founding in 1995, largely working with teams of college students and faculty. Its success to date, and its future promise, have both turned heads and drawn significant funding support, from the likes of the Lemelson Foundation, USAID, the European Investment Fund, the National Institutes of Health, the Autodesk Foundation, the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, the National Science Foundation, to name a few.

“Our objective broadly is to impact entrepreneurship and innovation at colleges and universities,” VentureWell President Phil Weilerstein told BusinessWest, noting that its programs encompass grant making, faculty development, conferences, and curriculum — all with the goal of “making the idea of entrepreneurship more available to students.”

Laura Sampath says VentureWell is looking to adapt its model to enterprises that aren’t college-based.

Laura Sampath says VentureWell is looking to adapt its model to enterprises that aren’t college-based.

More specifically, the idea is to foster programs that help people move ideas into practice — and then scalability.

“As someone who’d started a business in the Valley before this, I wish I’d have had someone share these things with me so that the startup process was more effective, efficient, and less painful,” he went on. “It’s very rewarding, knowing the value it has for the people we work with, and being able to do it in a way that not only supports that particular venture but creates, through that venture, other pathways.”

Such a program is needed, if a recent report by the National Chamber Foundation and the Millennial Generation Research Review is to be believed. While more than 2,100 U.S. colleges and universities have added an entrepreneurship curriculum, the report notes, a large percentage of former students claim that the coursework did not adequately prepare them to start a business. Which raises the question, how can student innovators gain the necessary tools and knowledge to take their idea to market?

Enter VentureWell, and its team of 56 individuals trying to change the world from their quiet corner of Hadley. “We provide people with a healthy start,” Weilerstein said, “and get them on a pathway they might not otherwise have found.”

How they do that can’t be explained in a few words — and the potential worldwide impact is broader still.

What’s the Big Idea?

VentureWell was established in 1995 with support from the Lemelson Foundation, founded by prolific independent U.S. inventor Jerome Lemelson, who believed invention was essential to American economic success and vitality and envisioned a program that would foster the next generation of collegiate inventors and help them bring their ideas to impact.

In 1995, Lemelson convened a group of higher education faculty and administrators at Hampshire College to discuss how to make his vision a reality. In the meeting, Lemelson described an organization that would support educators in implementing a hands-on, experiential approach to learning while at the same time helping students develop new products and boost them toward commercialization.

VentureWell — originally called the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance — was created out of this meeting. It began offering grants to faculty to start programs in technology entrepreneurship, particularly ones that focused on the development of ‘E-teams’ — groups of students, faculty, and advisors working to commercialize a novel idea. VentureWell then funded the best E-teams coming out of those courses and programs, helping them bring their inventions to market.

Christina Tamer (left), senior program officer, and Lauren Gase

Christina Tamer (left), senior program officer, and Lauren Gase, senior evaluation analyst, at VentureWell’s annual OPEN conference, which promotes connections among innovators and entrepreneurs.

The organization has since grown to a membership of 200 colleges and universities from across the U.S., engaging — and funding — thousands of undergraduate and graduate student entrepreneurs each year.

“Our approach from the outset has been to develop pathways for people with good ideas to figure out how to make an impact in the world through an innovation process that leads to scaled entrepreneurial outcomes,” Weilerstein said. “We’ve been successful at doing that both in the individual E-team ventures as well as working with institutions — with faculty and folks who are the enablers of this work — to improve the productivity of their environments.”

The end goal, he added, is to create pathways and support resources that enable ventures not only to emerge, but emerge with the ability to scale up and sustain that growth.

This is accomplished in three ways: programs to assist early-stage innovators, faculty initiatives, and cultivating broad-based innovation and entrepreneurship networks.

E-teams — VentureWell’s most common approach to early-stage innovation — are formed through competitive grants accessed through universities, Weilerstein explained. “Students are driving the projects — they’re the entrepreneurs, and they’re expected to be the startup founders, typically after they graduate. They learn by doing early-stage development in school, so they’re in good position to raise money and launch the company after graduation. Our training programs are designed to support that process.”

VentureWell’s second means to achieve its goals is by supporting faculty initiatives at colleges and universities — basically, challenging innovation and entrepreneurship (I&E) faculty to pioneer new and better ways of engaging their students in the entrepreneurial process. To these ends, the organization issues grants up to $30,000 to support science- and technology-based I&E in higher education.

Finally, VentureWell wants to cultivate networks of inventors and entrepreneurs to build an ecosystem of innovation.

“VentureWell has awarded over $11 million to 450-plus faculty at more than 230 different institutions,” Victoria Matthew, VentureWell senior program officer, said during a recent conference session on a project called Mission 2025, which was designed to elicit a vision for the future of I&E education. “Over that time, I&E education ecosystems have flourished and advanced such that competitions, entrepreneurship centers, and maker spaces are now standard on many campuses. While the progress is impressive, many in our community are now asking: ‘where do we go from here?’”

Indeed, Laura Sampath, vice president of Programs, told BusinessWest that, more than five years ago, VentureWell started being recognized nationally for the work it was doing with early-stage innovators, and funders were asking how to translate the model to support innovators who were not necessarily university-based. So the organization started working with USAID and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on programs that supported scientific community.

“It’s the same at its core with a slightly different participant base, and those programs have continued to grow,” Sampath said, adding that VentureWell also works with the U.S. State Department to promote enterprises in Africa, Eastern Europe, and other areas. “With this model we developed over our first 20-plus years in existence, there are a great deal of transferrable ideas within that.”

Getting Down to Business

Again, the idea is to effect broad change in some area of technology, healthcare, or environment — and change lives, perhaps worldwide.

“We want to have an impact on educational and institutional systems, infrastructure, and ecosystems that provide the breeding ground and opportunity space where people with ideas can begin to think about the applications of their ideas,” Weilerstein said. “We work with the innovators to move that forward to support opportunity and investment and jobs — but also societal benefits through health and environment impacts.”

Sometimes the innovator doesn’t even understand what the eventual value of his or her invention will be.

“Like, I might know how to put a coating on a piece of glass so that nothing will stick to it. Well, who cares about that?” Weilerstein said, suggesting that, perhaps, people who make solar panels and want them to shed dust may value that idea most. “The initial thinking was, ‘I can make windows that never need to be washed.’ Well, it turns out that’s not actually worth much to people. So the innovators are finding out where the value is and what will actually lead to a viable, scalable business.”

In short, the E-teams and other programs are teaching students and faculty how to go from thinking like a scientist to thinking like an entrepreneur. “How can we support the scaling of your brilliant research idea and help it move more quickly or successfully into use by other people? That’s the critical jump between nothing ever coming of a really interesting research result and something actually world-changing happening.”

At VentureWell’s inception, Sampath added, the field of innovation and entrepreneurship was very different, and the types of institutions it works with must continue to evolve along with societal needs. “Part of what we now need to do is create that engine in a way that keeps us up with the times, that ensures we’re meeting the need of the [innovation] field as it stands today, which is constantly changing. And there’s no shortage of opportunity.”

Part of Mission 2025, Weilerstein said, is building tech-innovation networks in geographic pockets — like in the Midwest — that don’t have the advantages of, say, Boston, where resources, funding, and talent to build a billion-dollar company are close at hand.

“This is very rewarding work,” he added. “I feel lucky every day to come to work. It is meaningful work, both for the outcomes that happen and the way the work we do changes people.”

Even if an idea never turns into a viable business, the E-team experience often changes the mindset of the students, who then bring that heightened entrepreneurial approach to whatever career they attempt.

And if an idea does take root? Well, the world is full of massive problems in need of solving.

“The solutions to the problems facing society are often found at scale in an entrepreneurial way, and I think that’s true of things like climate change, pollution issues, and healthcare,” he went on. “People often are reluctant to associate problem solving with entrepreneurship, but that’s the way we approach it. Our work starts with invention. That’s really at the core of what we’re looking for — people who have figured out how to take a good idea and reduce it to practice. And the good idea is usually a solution to somebody’s problem.”

To an entrepreneur, the end goal of a good idea might be a business, independence, and financial security. That’s all fine, but Weilerstein wants people to think bigger.

“You have the satisfaction of a career, but it’s also an important way for society to solve problems,” he said. “All the things we think of as a crisis, we also see as an opportunity.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Entrepreneurship

Stout Measures

Ray Berry and business partner Ashley Clark

Ray Berry and business partner Ashley Clark at the company’s beer garden in Tower Square Park.

Ray Berry said he recently delivered what amounted to the commencement address for the most recent accelerator class at SPARK EforAll Holyoke.

When asked for a synopsis of that speech, Berry, founder and general manager of Springfield-based White Lion Brewing Co., said he talked to the fledgling business owners about the roller-coaster ride that is entrepreneurship — the ups and downs, successes, failures, and inevitable pivots.

“They’re traveling the same journey I traveled,” he said of his time working with Valley Venture Mentors and taking part in its accelerator program. “I talked about what worked and what didn’t work, what I would do if I had the opportunity to change something, and how, at the end the day, you win some along the way and you lose some, and that just makes your company stronger and the team around you stronger; you ride that wave of experience.”

He was speaking, of course, from experience — lots of wave riding, in fact, as he’s taken White Lion from a part-time pursuit, a concept he launched while working for the United Way of Pioneer Valley, to a full-time passion.

“At the end the day, you win some along the way and you lose some, and that just makes your company stronger and the team around you stronger; you ride that wave of experience.”

Indeed, he told BusinessWest that the casual observer might not be aware of those turns, dips, challenging times, and pivots, but there have been many of each on this ride, which started in 2011.

“A lot of people see what’s on the surface, but they rarely get a glimpse of what’s going on behind the scenes,” he explained. “The late nights, a lot of conversation, a lot of strategy … and during that process, there are some wins, and there are some losses. In our business, it’s about sales, and through that journey, you gain accounts, and you lose some accounts.”

For White Lion, the journey has come to an intriguing place — one where the venture is taking dramatic steps to expand its footprint geographically, while also increasing its presence in the region and playing an ever-larger role in the ongoing renaissance in Springfield.

These efforts take several forms, especially the ongoing plans to create a brewery and taproom in Tower Square, specifically at the long-vacant site of the former Spaghetti Freddy’s restaurant.

Berry and other partners recently appeared before the Armory Quadrangle Civic Assoc. to talk about their plans and what they might mean for the city and Tower Square, and in a few weeks they’ll do the same before the City Council, which must grant a special permit for the project to move forward.

Meanwhile, the company has moved forward with plans for a beer garden in Tower Square Park, the small park across Main Street from the office/retail complex. Actually, Berry likes to call this “an outdoor beer, music, food, and family venue,” a phrase that certainly captures what it’s all about.

Indeed, there’s White Lion on tap, but there’s also music — the Standing Bear Band and the Buddy McEarns Band were among the first acts booked — as well as rotating food trucks and other food providers, and activities for the entire family.

The venture is a logical extension of the White Lion Wednesdays pop-up beer gardens that drew a popular response, said Ashley Clark, a cash-management officer at Berkshire Bank, part of the White Lion team for several years, and now a managing partner. And it is an important step forward as the company works to build its brand while also being part of the efforts to bring more vibrancy to Springfield and its central business district.

“The White Lion Wednesdays were created so that everyone could leave work, stop, have a beer, hang out for a little bit, and be on their way,” said Clark. “Now, with the beer garden stationary in one place, the event is created not just for people leaving work, but also for families.”

White Lion’s new beer garden was designed to be enjoyed by the whole family.

White Lion’s new beer garden was designed to be enjoyed by the whole family.

Combined, these ambitious steps add up to a critical moment in the company’s brief history and represent an intriguing new chapter in the story.

“We’re at a pivotal stage of growth — we have strong programming, we have strong community engagement, we’re in the midst of building a brewery, and we’re clearly growing by way of volume and the amount of sales that are hitting the market,” Berry said, adding that, once the downtown brewery opens, the company will add another six to 12 employees, taking growth to another, much higher plane.

For this issue’s focus on entrepreneurship, BusinessWest talked with Berry and Clark about White Lion and the latest strategic initiatives in its business plan — but also about those basic tenets of business that Berry passed on in his recent address — especially the part about riding that wave of experience.

Lager Than Life

Returning to that address at the SPARK EforAll event, Berry said he spent a good deal of time talking about pivoting, how natural it is, and how important it is.

“I talked about how people in business often get stuck in their lane — we don’t want to venture out, for whatever reason,” he explained. “So I was very strong in touching on fear of failure, the risk quotient, the need to pivot, the need to listen … but how also, at the end of the day, you’re responsible for the decisions you make, and you have to live by them.

“To change course is a natural part of a growing business,” he went on. “And sometimes, those forces are financial, demand, supply, government regulation, and more, so you always have to be aware of all of those fronts.”

Listening, pivoting, and moving out of the lane pretty much sum up what is approaching a decade of business for White Lion, a brand that now boasts several different labels and has made the White Lion imagery part of the landscape in Springfield — and beyond.

But none of it has been easy, said Berry, who cited his plans — first envisioned several years ago — for building a brewery downtown as a solid example.

“It’s been a journey, and we’ve really come full circle,” he told BusinessWest. “From day one, we wanted the brewery to be part of the downtown fabric; we wanted to be in the heart of what was being called a renaissance, a resurgence in downtown Springfield.”

While many breweries are located in more rural areas, in old mills along rivers and streams, Berry said some have set up shop in the central business district and been part of downtown revitalization efforts.

He noted Brooklyn Brewery — a venture that has played an important role in the meteoric rise of that New York borough in recent years — as an example he’s in many ways trying to emulate.

“They took it upon themselves to invest in a highly dilapidated area in Brooklyn,” he said. “And since that investment, that entire area has been redeveloped, and it’s become a destination.

“White Lion is anchored in the heart of a metropolitan area,” he went on, adding that he was determined to build a brewery somewhere downtown.

But the search became more complex than he could have anticipated.

“I think that, in the beginning, I might have been a little naïve, feeling right from the onset that there would be a lot of opportunity, and space, for a brewery, and that was just not the case,” he said, adding that it soon became clear that the company was going to have to fit, or “mold,” itself into a suitable location downtown.

He looked at a number of options, including the old Rain nightclub building in Stearns Square, a property in Market Place that was eventually deemed more expensive to rehab than new construction, and 1350 Main St., also known as One Financial Plaza, before the focus shifted to Tower Square.

Actually, it was the new ownership of that landmark property that approached him.

White Lion partners

White Lion partners Ashley Clark and Ray Berry with brand ambassadors Scott Freniere, second from left, and Jeremy Eickelberg at the beer garden.

“They wanted us to be part of their plans to make Tower Square a destination of its own,” he said. “We were intrigued and felt very comfortable in those discussions.”

One of the new owners of Tower Square, Vid Mitta, has also become an equity partner in White Lion, said Berry, adding that the ownership team has expanded in recent months and now includes several managing partners, including Clark and brewer Mike Yates.

What’s on Tap?

It was this expanded team that appeared before the Armory Quadrangle Civic Assoc. last week, and is slated to make its case to the City Council later this month (they certainly believe they have a strong one).

If all goes as planned — and the brewing equipment has already been moved in — roughly 98% of production will take place in downtown Springfield, said Berry, adding that the remaining 2% — the bottles supplied to MGM Springfield (the rest are cans) — will be contracted out.

And while pressing on with the plans for the brewery, the owners are taking bold steps to build the brand and expand its footprint.

The beer garden is one of these steps, said Clark, adding that a permanent location for the beer garden and an expansion from Wednesdays to Wednesday through Saturday was a logical progression, and one that made this a family event.

“We’ve created an environment where, if you’re a mother and father with two young kids, everyone can come down on Saturday afternoon or Friday night and listen to some music and play games, and all have a good time,” she said, adding that the garden is open from 4 to 9 p.m.

Meanwhile, outside the city, the brand, which self-distributes, has now extended its reach across the state to Cape Cod and continues to look for new growth opportunities, said Berry, adding that it now has more than 750 accounts — and counting.

“We’ve been able to grow in Central and Eastern Mass. through hard work and forging relationships,” said Berry, who credits another fairly recent addition to the team, Blair Landry, a veteran of the craft-beer industry who had already forged a number of relationships on the distribution side within the industry with another label, and has been re-engaging with the White Lion brand. “Locally, it’s a much cleaner and clearer conversation because we’re local. Through the relationships that all of us have, we’ve been able to onboard a number of accounts that have enabled us to grow considerably over the past two years.”

He said the decision to self-distribute, while somewhat unusual, is a pivot— again, one of many — that has benefited the company in a number of ways.

“Early on, we relied too heavily on distribution partners,” he explained. “Those distribution partners can open doors, but they’re also managing another 100 to 150 brands, and that led us to make a pivot; we felt we could have a stronger level of engagement by doing it on our own, and we’ve been able to demonstrate that by opening up many more accounts and strengthening our outlook going forward.”

He acknowledged there is a tremendous amount of competition within the craft-beer industry, and new brands enter the market seemingly every week. But he said this competition provides both challenges and opportunities, with the latter coming to those willing to put in the work and make their brand stand out in a crowded marketplace.

“Craft is about local; craft is about conversation and fostering relationships,” he explained. “If you can engage and foster relationships and have good beer and be true to your word, you’re going to be able to open some doors, and we’ve done that.”

Hip Hops

Berry told BusinessWest that, if all goes smoothly — and what he told the accelerator graduates at commencement is that things certainly don’t always go smoothly — the first can of White Lion will be rolling off the line at the facility in Tower Square late this summer.

It will be an important moment for the company given the stage in its development and the location of the brewery — the heart of downtown Springfield.

But, in reality, it’s just the latest in a number of big moments, with many more likely to come as the team at White Lion continues to ride that wave of experience and continue its remarkable journey.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Entrepreneurship

Becoming a Resource

Robyn Caody, left, and Samalid Hogan are working to take Innovate413 to the next level as a resource to the region.

Robyn Caody, left, and Samalid Hogan are working to take Innovate413 to the next level as a resource to the region.

Samalid Hogan says that, when the website Innovate413 was launched roughly four years ago, it was with a desire to not only promote entrepreneurship and innovation in the region, but to inspire more of both.

And when she agreed to essentially take over the initiative early last year, she admitted the original goal was just to “keep it going,” as she put it, because she could clearly see the value it represented.

But rather than just keep it going, she has committed herself to taking its mission, and its offerings, to a much higher level. And with the help of a growing team that includes Robyn Caody, a business-culture and brand strategist who relocated to the region from New York City, Hogan, best known as director of the Western Mass. Small Business Development Center and winner of BusinessWest’s Continued Excellence Award last year, is doing just that.

Indeed, Innovate 413, or Inno413, for short, has become a multi-platform initiative, with a website (www.innovate413) as well as a monthly newsletter and comprehensive calendar of events related to entrepreneurship, professional development, and business management.

In addition to publishing original content, Innovate413 also aggregates and links to entrepreneurial news from outside sources, provides resources for entrepreneurs in the Pioneer Valley, and encourages its partner organizations to submit their own content highlighting innovative trends within their businesses.

The broad goals, said Hogan, are to educate and motivate the audience and also promote the region and all that’s happening within it, especially when it comes to a steadily growing startup community.

“There’s a big start-up culture here, a culture of creativity — I could sense that. But since I moved here, it’s been hard to find these people; I know they’re here, but where’s the community hub? How can I find out what people are doing? Innovate413 is a way to make that more obvious.”

“When I took it over, the goal was to just keep it alive and post items on the site,” she explained. “But now we’re actively engaged in taking this to the next level and making it much more of a resource.”

Caody agreed. She said she relocated to this region partly because of the large amounts of creativity and entrepreneurial spirit that exist here, and a desire to be part of all that. She joined Innovate413 to help shed some light on all that’s going on.

“There’s a big startup culture here, a culture of creativity — I could sense that,” she explained. “But since I moved here, it’s been hard to find these people; I know they’re here, but where’s the community hub? How can I find out what people are doing? Innovate413 is a way to make that more obvious.”

The content currently on the site provides an effective snapshot of the mission and how it’s carried out. There are several stories from the pages of BusinessWest — including those highlighting agencies such as TechSpring, Valley Venture Mentors, the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship at UMass Amherst, 1Berkshire, and others — and other media outlets. But there is more original content, such as a piece on the upcoming Demo Day, written by Paul Silva, president of Launch413, and short stories on individual businesses.

The site prints articles from agencies like TechSpring (one of the original founders of the site, along with Click Workspace and PixelEdge), Greentown Labs, and others, and submissions from individual entrepreneurs looking to help educate others or just tell their own story.

Headlines on educational stories currently on the site range from “Five Signs You Might Have Second-stage Business” to “Should You Get a Business Certification?” Meanwhile, there are profiles (again, many from BusinessWest) on agencies and businesses ranging from Happier Valley Comedy to Central Rock Gym.

The team at Innovate413 now includes Hogan; Caody, serving as chief Development officer; and Mychal Connolly Sr., an entrepreneur (he founded the venture Stinky Cakes), author, and speaker who serves as chief Marketing officer.

Together, they’re working to make the initiative more of a resource for area entrepreneurs — and the region as a whole — and an ever-more-important part of the entrepreneurship ecosystem in Western Mass.

“There’s a lot of opportunity here because a lot of organizations that are not really innovative have found themselves wanting to innovate. And we can really be a resource to these agencies.”

The goal moving forward, said Hogan, is to create more original content, build a subscriber base for the monthly newsletter — there are currently a few hundred, and the goal is 1,000 — and continually build the calendar, which is becoming a popular and valuable resource,

Indeed, the calendar posts events being staged by 16 different area organizations within the ecosystem, and organizers do the hard work by pulling the items off those agencies’ websites.

“We post anything that helps entrepreneurs,” said Hogan. “That includes training and educational programs such as those on how to start a business, networking events, pitch competitions, leadership programs, things like Demo Day, blockchain-technology meetups … anything that helps educate entrepreneurs.”

And, looking down the road, those at Innovate413 have a vision of perhaps creating events to help promote entrepreneurship. As with the startups it spotlights, the initiative’s business plan is evolving, said Caody.

“Ultimately, we want to create a community of entrepreneurs and small-business owners,” she said, adding that there is a considerable amount of momentum building within the startup community and the ecosystem that supports it, and Innovate413 wants to tap that energy and use it to fuel additional growth.

Like any business in this region, Innovate413 has the broad goal to be sustainable, said both Hogan and Caody, adding that the initiative is laying a solid foundation that will enable it to do just that.

“There’s a gap when it comes to this kind of service in this region, and we’re filling it, slowly but surely,” said Hogan. “We’re getting there.”

Caody agreed. “There’s a lot of opportunity here because a lot of organizations that are not really innovative have found themselves wanting to innovate,” she explained. “And we can really be a resource to these agencies.”

—George O’Brien

Features

Getting Creative

Kristin Leutz

Kristin Leutz says the inaugural Innovation Fest will provide a solid foundation on which to build.

HUBweek in Boston. Denver Startup Week. The Tom Tom Summit & Festival in Charlottesville, Va. South by Southwest in Austin, Texas.

These are just a few of the many highly successful and very well-attended entrepreneurship and innovation events now taking place across the country.

Some of them go on for a few days, others for a whole week, as their names make clear, said Kristen Leutz, executive director of Springfield-based Valley Venture Mentors (VVM), who has been to Startup Week and will likely attend some of those other gatherings in the months and years to come as she seeks to learn more about entrepreneurship ecosystems, how they work, and how they can be developed and expanded.

For right now, though, she’s busy putting together the latest addition to that list of summits. It will be called the Springfield Innovation Fest, or SIF for short, although its probably too early for an acronym to take hold.

Indeed, Leutz and her team at VVM are essentially starting from scratch and scrambling to pull things together for the June 12 event, to be staged at the Innovation Center on Bridge Street in Springfield. As she tells the story, those at VVM had been thinking about and talking about a summit — an event that would showcase this region’s burgeoning entrepreneurship ecosystem (and the many other things that are happening in and around Springfield) and take VVM’s Accelerator Awards banquet to a new and much higher plane. But they were initially focused on 2020, a round-number year with all kinds of meaning — until they decided not to wait that long to get the ball rolling.

“We decided to do this on a very short time frame,” she said. “Once we came up with the vision, we were all excited; we didn’t want to wait a another year. We said, ‘let’s lean into it and see what we can pull off.’”

Leutz told BusinessWest that the Springfield Innovation Fest certainly has a long way to go before it can be mentioned in the same sentence as those events in Boston, Denver, Central Texas, and Northern Virginia, but one has to start somewhere, create some buzz, and continually build on the foundation that’s been laid, and that is the very informal business plan for the festival.

“We decided to do this on a very short time frame. Once we came up with the vision, we were all excited; we didn’t want to wait a another year. We said, ‘let’s lean into it and see what we can pull off.’”

“Startup Week certainly wasn’t built in a day — or a week,” she said. “We want to see if we can gain some excitement and momentum for next year.”

The inaugural event, still very much in the planning stages, as noted, will feature a number of speakers, ample amounts of networking, and opportunities to get a taste of Springfield — figuratively and quite literally, with tours of the Springfield Museums and Fresh Paint mural art, as well as a visit to What’s on Tap Wednesday.

There are many goals for this year, said Leutz, listing everything from celebrating this region’s history of innovation and ‘firsts’ to recognizing the winners (and all the companies) in this year’s VVM Accelerator class, to moving the needle when it comes to putting Springfield and this region on the map as a startup and innovation hub.

“In the vein of these other festivals that showcase the startup and innovation economies, I thought that, given all that’s happening in Springfield, it was time for our own startup event,” she explained. “I want visibility for the work of entrepreneurship and innovation and how it affects our economy and how it affects traditional businesses as well as startups.

“The idea of being innovative goes beyond a startup company — it infiltrates everything that we do,” she went on. “Springfield is a city of firsts, and we really believe in that heritage and history, and we want people to see that it still is a city of innovation.”

For this issue and focus on business innovation, BusinessWest talked with Leutz about the launch of the SIF, what to expect this year, and where this summit can go in the years to come.

Summit Meeting

“How to Bootstrap the Bejeezus out of Your Startup.” “Think Like a Placemaker Transforming Neighborhoods.” “Future Forward: Live Better with Innovation in Healthcare.” “How to Help Female Founders Succeed (and Every Other Founder, Too).”

These are titles for just some of the presentations scheduled for the SIF, said Leutz, noting that they will cover two tracks — a startup track and an innovator track — and feature speakers that include both young entrepreneurs and leaders of several of the groups within that aforementioned entrepreneurship ecosystem.

And these presentations represent just one aspect of the festival, she went on, adding that there will be, as mentioned, several breaks for networking and collision-making, a showcase and lunch at which attendees can meet the VVM Accelerator and Summer Collegiate Accelerator startups as they showcase their businesses and compete for ‘VVM bucks,’ and also a pitch competition featuring the top five in the Accelerator and the awarding of prizes.

The full lineup is still very much a work in progress, even at this late date (remember, they started late), and the general ideas are to both call attention to the growing startup community and innovative energy in the region, and also give attendees something to take back home — whether that’s across the state or maybe cross-country (although that’s more likely to happen down the road).

This is the formula that those festivals mentioned at the top have followed, said Leutz, noting that many of them are works in progress as well.

That’s certainly the case with HUBweek, which was launched just three years ago, but now brings together attendees from 59 countries, 46 states, and 38 industries, according to the event’s website. Marketed as a gathering “where art, science, and technology collide,” HUBweek was founded by the Boston Globe, Harvard, MIT, and Massachusetts General Hospital, and its website describes it as “a giant petri dish welcoming impact-oriented artists, entrepreneurs, researchers, executives, makers, and up-and-comers. HUBweek brings together the curious, those building our future.”

Startup Week in Denver is in many ways similar, said Leutz, adding that she attended last fall’s festival and came away inspired to bring something with the same vibe, and energy, to the City of Homes.

“It was incredible,” she said, using that adjective to describe the scope of the show, the depth of the speakers, and the amount of planning and marketing that went into the event. “They had 1,000 applications for talks.”

While something to aspire to, these shows more importantly represent a model that can be replicated on a considerably smaller scale, she said, adding that, like the Boston show, she wants an event where worlds can collide, and, like Denver, she wants a “community-created event,” where people submit ideas for talks.

For this first show, organizers have put together a schedule of talks targeted toward entrepreneurs and would-be entrepreneurs, and ‘innovators,’ a broad constituency to be sure, said Leutz. Speakers, many of them still to be confirmed, include Christian Lagier, executive director of TechSpring; Mo Reed-McNally of the MassMutual Foundation, and Laura Masulis, transformative development fellow with MassDevelopment (they’re handling the talk on transforming neighborhoods); Bill Cole, leader of Living Local, and Tessa Murphy-Romboletti, director of SPARK EforAll Holyoke, who will lead a discussion titled “How to Revive Main Street”; and Daquan Oliver, president of WeThrive, the first-prize winner in last year’s VVM Accelerator Awards.

As for this year’s Accelerator class, it is smaller — by design (16 companies) — in order to provide more in-depth, customized support to the startups, said Leutz, adding that a smaller group enabled VVM to have a higher ratio of entrepreneurs in residence to startups.

Meanwhile, some of the cash traditionally handed out at the annual banquet as prizes has been awarded already in order to help the startups advance their ventures, said Leutz, adding that there is still plenty at stake at the June 12 showcase and final pitch.

All-day passes to the SIF are $50 each ($45 each for blocks of three or more), and potential attendees can buy an extra ticket so an entrepreneur can attend for free, said Leutz, adding that the admission charge is essentially to cover the cost of the event. Sponsorship opportunities are available, starting at $1,000. For more information, visit www.valleyventurementors.org.

Getting Started

Like the companies taking part in the VVM Accelerator, the SIF is essentially a startup venture, Leutz acknowledged, and one with considerable promise to grow well beyond its current size and scope.

It will likely never be on the same level as HUBweek or Denver Startup Week, but like those other events, it provides an opportunity to bring several worlds together and spark more innovation.

SIF is not part of the local lexicon yet, but Leutz and her team believe it soon will be.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Opinion

Editorial

Back nearly a quarter-century ago, BusinessWest launched a new recognition program — the first of what would become many: its Top Entrepreneur Award.

And that name pretty much says it all. It’s an award recognizing entrepreneurial spirit — the kind that made this region what it is today, business-wise. The kind possessed by people like Milton Bradley, Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson, Mike Kittredge of Yankee Candle, and Prestley and Curtis Blake, who were just 20 and 18, respectively, when they launched Friendly Ice Cream in 1935.

That kind of entrepreneurial spirit lives on today, and it needs to be recognized, because it is that spirit, as much as any effort to lure casinos or subway-car-building companies to the region, that is responsible for the economic vitality we enjoy in this region.

Indeed, BusinessWest now has a number of recognition programs, including the wildly popular 40 Under Forty competition and the Continued Excellence Award that emerged from it, Difference Makers, Healthcare Heroes, and Women of Impact. But the Top Entrepreneur Award may in some ways be the most significant in terms of its ability to recognize excellence and inspire others.

And entrepreneurship is inspiring, because it comes in many forms. There’s the more traditional variety — generally in the form of bringing new products and services to the market. And BusinessWest has recognized individuals who have done that over the years, such as Paul Kozub, creater of V-One Vodka. There are also serial entrepreneurs, like Peter Rosskothen, owner of the Log Cabin and several other businesses, and Bob Bolduc, founder of Pride, who continues to find new ways to expand and improve upon that brand.

There are generations of the same family who have taken an enterprise well beyond its original roots — the Balise family (auto dealerships) the Falcone family (Rocky’s Hardware), and the D’Amour family (Big Y) have been so honored.

And then, there are individuals and groups who would be considered non-traditional and honored because of the manner in which they have brought entrepreneurial thinking to an organization. There have been several winners in this category as well, ranging from former STCC President Andrew Scibelli to former Cooley Dickinson Hospital CEO Craig Melin, to last year’s honorees — the owners and managers of the Springfield Thunderbirds.

Actually, those who have resurrected hockey in Springfield fit into several of those categories, because they’re introducing new products and inspiring an organization to become entrepreneurial in everything it does.

And the same can be said for the Top Entrepreneurs for 2018, the Antonacci family. Indeed, its work also falls into several categories, of you will, especially that of the serial entrepreneur. The various generations have created everything from a waste-hauling operation to a horse-breeding and racing farm; from a family-entertainment complex to a high-end country club. But they have also worked continuously to find new and imaginative ways to expand those ventures and make them even more successful.

Younger generations of the family talked about their grandfather (Sonny Antonacci) as a visionary who could see opportunities where others didn’t — like bottled water during the 1970s, even though he didn’t actually get into that industry. But they possess the same trait themselves as they take GreatHorse, Sonny’s Place, Lindy’s Farm, and especially USA Waste & Recycling to new heights.

The Top Entrepreneur Award was created to recognize entrepreneurship, showcase the many forms it takes, and inspire those looking to follow in the footsteps of some of those now-famous names mentioned earlier.

In all those respects, the many members of the Antonacci family are certainly worthy recipients.

Workforce Development

The Heat Is On

Springfield Operations Manager Meagan Greene

The culinary world is a notoriously challenging place to forge a career, and turnover at the entry level is often high, a problem that constantly challenges restaurants, hotels, colleges, and a host of other food-service companies. Enter Snapchef, which has built a regional reputation for training those workers and matching them with workforce needs to help them get a foot in the door — and then, hopefully, kick it in.

It’s called ‘backfilling.’

That’s a concept businesses in many area industries — from financial services to marketing, from security to hospitality — have been thinking about as MGM Springfield has ramped up its efforts to hire some 3,000 people for its August opening.

Backfilling, simply put, it’s the replacement of an employee who moves on to a different opportunity, and MGM has undoubtedly caused a wave of that phenomenon locally. Because of the casino’s food-service operations, area restaurants, hotels, and other facilities that prepare and serve food have been doing quite a bit of backfilling as well.

If they can find adequate replacements, that is. That’s where Snapchef, a regional food-service training company that opened up shop in Springfield last year, can play a key role.

CEO Todd Snopkowski, who founded Snapchef 16 years ago, said the business model has proven successful in its other four locations — Boston, Dorchester, Worcester, and Providence, R.I. — and has found fertile ground in the City of Homes, where the need for restaurant workers has been on the rise.

“We train folks that are looking to make a career change,” he told BusinessWest. “And, being a staffing company, we don’t only train, we also match folks looking for work in the industry with jobs that are available. If they don’t have the skills to do a job, we actually train them, whether it be dishwashing, cooking, cheffing, you name it. We cover those bases and give them a foothold in the industry.”

As the largest culinary training and staffing company in New England, Snapchef essentially trains and provides staffing help to area food-service establishments. Clients range from large colleges and universities and hospitals to food-service corporations; from hotels and corporate cafeterias to hotels and restaurants.

We train folks that are looking to make a career change,” he told BusinessWest. “And, being a staffing company, we don’t only train, we also match folks looking for work in the industry with jobs that are available. If they don’t have the skills to do a job, we actually train them, whether it be dishwashing, cooking, cheffing, you name it. We cover those bases and give them a foothold in the industry.”

“If they come to me with little or no skills or just want to brush up, we guide individuals in that track,” said Meagan Greene, operations manager in Springfield, noting that Snapchef’s 13-week courses include fast-track culinary training, ServSafe food handling, and workplace safety, among other offerings.

“When the finish the apprentice program, we try to find them full-time jobs, where they can utilize their skills in the workforce,” she went on, noting that all of that is free. The training programs are grant-funded, while Snapchef’s partner employers pay for the hours the employee works, while SnapChef pays the employee directly, with pay depending on the position.

This isn’t culinary school, Greene stressed, but a place to learn enough to get into the culinary world, and advance career-wise from there — an idea Greene called “earning and learning.”

“We go over soups, stocks, sauces, emulsions, salad bar, deli prep. Sometimes, people will go out into the field, come back, and say, ‘hey, Meagan, I did this today at work; is there a better way to do it?’ We also do a little bit of baking, which isn’t our specialty, but you’ll learn how to make pies, quick breads, muffins, and danishes.”

The need for culinary workers, especially at the entry level, is constant, Greene noted, sometimes year-round and sometimes seasonally — for example, colleges need help between September and May, while Six Flags requires a wave of help between April and October.

“For some of the colleges, this will be their second school year with us, so they may buy out some of our employees because they liked them last year,” she told BusinessWest. “It’s kind of bittersweet for us, because the people who get bought out or move forward or find their own job — those are your keepers. Those are the ones who show up for work every day, people who are clean and on time and ready to rock. I’m like, ‘noooo!’ But it’s nice to see somebody move forward.”

Moving forward, after all, is what it’s all about once that foot is in the door.

Slow Burn

Snopkowski has grown Snapchef from its original home Dorchester into a regional force that has trained thousands of workers for potentially rewarding careers in what is, admittedly, a tough field to master, and one where good help is valuable.

Clients have ranged from individual restaurants and caterers to Foxwoods Resort Casino and Gillette Stadium, as well as large food-service corporations like Aramark, Sodexo, and the Compass Group.

Snapchef CEO Todd Snopkowski

Snapchef CEO Todd Snopkowski

“With my background, being a corporate chef, I saw the need for an organization like Snapchef 25 years ago. And I think there’s a huge opportunity down the road for even more expansion,” said, noting that MGM Springfield itself poses significant opportunity. “We’re supporting them, and for businesses suffering the loss of people taking these awesome jobs MGM has to offer, we’re there to make sure we backfill the vacancies.”

Snapchef’s growth has led to a number of accolades for Snopkowski, including the 2015 SBA Small Business Person of the Year award for Massachusetts, and the 2016 Citizens Bank Good Citizens Award. And it has inspired people like Greene, who see the value in training the next generation of food-service workers.

She works with the state Department of Labor and the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County to create apprenticeship models, teaching participants everything from basic knife skills to how to conduct themselves in a kitchen. She also helps them append their résumés based on what they’ve learned.

After studying culinary arts at a vocational high school and earning three degrees from Johnson & Wales University, she became a sous chef at Sturbridge Host Hotel, not far from her home in Warren. She loved the job — and the commute — but traded it in for an opportunity to work for Snapchef.

“To be honest, I’m never bored. I’m always doing something different,” she said, and that’s true of many of her trainees, who typically begin with temporary placements, which often become permanent. But not all are seeking a permanent gig, she added; some love the variety of ever-changing assignments.

“Some people love it because it’s a lifestyle for them,” she said. “They want to work over here, then they come back to me and say, ‘hey, Meagan, I wasn’t really liking that spot; I don’t want to go back there. I didn’t like the size of the kitchen. It was too big for me; I’m used to working in a smaller kitchen.’” I’ll say, ‘OK, I’ll try not to send you back there.’ And it’s a two-way street; clients can say, ‘I don’t want Joe Smith back.’”

Because the training is free, Snapchef offers an attractive opportunity for people who want to get a food in the door in food service.

Finishing Touches

As a company that fills a needed gap — as culinary schools aren’t typically training for entry-level positions — Snopkowski said Snapchef has made significant inroads in Western Mass. over the past year, especially working with FutureWorks Career Center to identify individuals looking to shift into the world of food service.

“Our employees don’t have to pay for transition training and all those attributes that are needed to get a foothold in the business,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s good to see that MGM recognizes it, the colleges as well.”

Speaking of financial perks, Snapchef-trained employees may access round-trip transportation from the Springfield office to their job sites across the region, for only $3 per day, Greene said. “It’s cheaper than Uber, cheaper than Lyft, and better than having your mom come pick you up and drop you off. If you live in the city and are used to taking the bus everywhere, you don’t have to worry about how to get to work.”

As for Greene, she continues to enjoy the variety of her work — a pickling enthusiast, she taught a recent class how to pickle vegetables, and they prepared 300 jars worth — as well as the success stories that arise from it, like a man trained by Snapchef who went on to further his education at Holyoke Community College and is now opening a restaurant with his daughter.

“I’ve had the opportunity to see people progress in a short period of time,” she said. “It’s nice to see someone grow so fast. I love that.”

Snopkowski has seen plenty such stories unfold in the 16 years his company has been training people for a new, challenging career, and then helping them build a foothold in the industry.

“We’ve only been able to scratch the surface; there are so many other opportunities out there,” he said. “The future is bright in culinary.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Entrepreneurship

Accelerating the Process

The winners of the 2018 Accelerator awards

The winners of the 2018 Accelerator awards

The products and services vary widely — from smoothies to yoga classes; from pet adoption to solar-powered battery rechargers; from water-purification technology to entrepreneurial apprenticeships. But the companies in Valley Venture Mentors’ Accelerator class of 2018 have many things in common, specifically the myriad daunting challenges involved with getting a venture off the ground or to a higher altitude. For this issue and its focus on entrepreneurship, BusinessWest looks at the three highest finishers among the 12 Accelerator finalists. We talked to those entrepreneurs about everything from what they’re going to do with the large checks they’ve received through this competition to how the Accelerator program helped them advance their concept.


WeThrive

Venture Provides an Entrepreneurial Practice Field for Students

WeThrive was the top winner in this year’s VVM Accelerator Awards.

WeThrive was the top winner in this year’s VVM Accelerator Awards.

Daquan Oliver is still in his mid-20s, but he already has a lot of awards and accolades on his résumé, including many of those ‘under’ lists that have become so prevalent.

He was included on the Forbes 30 Under 30 compilation for 2017, as well as the Boston Globe’s 25 Under 25 list. Back in 2014, as he was graduating from Babson College with a bachelor’s degree in business administration, he was named one of the Top Five Black Student Leaders to Watch by the Clinton Foundation. He’s delivered a TEDx Talk on actionable strategies to overcome structural violence, and been recognized by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Yes, it’s an impressive list of achievements, and it looks like he’ll have to make room for more trophies, plaques, and citations — including the ceremonial first-prize check from this year’s VVM Accelerator program, featuring the name of the venture, WeThrive, and the number $42,500.

That’s because it’s Oliver’s goal — and WeThrive’s unofficial mission — to help young people make those same ‘under’ lists and other honor rolls.

Indeed, Oliver, who grew up in a single-parent, low-income household, made a promise at age 14 to assist future children in a similar socioeconomic position to become successful. In a nutshell, that’s what WeThrive, based in New York City, is all about.

This is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) that essentially equips and empowers — those are two different things — low-income students in grades 7-10 to rise as entrepreneurial economic leaders, Oliver told BusinessWest.

“The students we serve are bursting with ideas to break the cycle of poverty, but too many times in their young lives, they have been told ‘no,’” he explained, adding that WeThrive gives them encouraging ‘yes’ to their entrepreneurial dreams.

It does this by training teachers, staff, and volunteers to become entrepreneurial educators who guide students through a curriculum designed to reach those left behind in traditional classrooms. Each student creates their own company, earning real revenues and donating profits to the charity of their choice.

The result is what the company calls an ‘entrepreneurial playing field,’ one that provides lessons not just in profit and loss and other business terms, but also in realms ranging from goal setting to teamwork to surviving the ups and downs of transforming an idea into a business.

Oliver, who launched this enterprise as he was exiting Babson, has taken it to a number of major metropolitan areas, including New York, Boston, Oakland, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., and it was while he was exploring the possibility of expanding into Greater Springfield that he learned about and then became part of the VVM Accelerator class of 2018.

His was, quite obviously, a story, a concept, a business plan, and a final pitch that won over the judges.

But as advanced and apparently rock-solid as this venture is, there is still growing and pivoting (that’s the term one hears a lot in rooms full of entrepreneurs) to do, and proverbial ‘next’ levels to reach, said Oliver, and the VVM Accelerator experience will help with all of that.

“We’re at a unique point in our journey,” he told BusinessWest. “We’re doing a number of different things, our model has recently pivoted pretty strongly, and we wanted to go through the nuts and bolts of really reassessing everything.”

The Accelerator program, a broad term used to refer to everything from the mentorship to the work sessions to the feedback from the other entrepreneurs in the room — helped with this by continually stressing the value of customer interviews.

“We need those to make sure we understand our principals, our teachers, the things they want, the value they see in WeThrive, their pain points, and more,” he explained. “That’s the biggest thing for us — the innate value of digging deeper into each of our customer pain points.”

Oliver said he was impressed by the strong sense of community within the VVM Accelerator and the manner in which the entrepreneurs, all vying for cash awards, nonetheless supported one another in their collective efforts to get to the next level.

“It’s technically a competition, but it never truly felt like one,” he explained. “Because we’re all rooting for each at the end of the day.

“When we approached this, we definitely wanted to win, of course,” he went on. “But we were much more focused on just creating a sustainable company, and VVM provided us with the resources to help do that, whether it was the mentors or the entrepreneurs.”

Oliver said WeThrive will begin operating in Springfield this fall, and he expects the nonprofit to expand into other parts of this region. Wherever it goes, it focuses on students who were like him — who all too often heard ‘no,’ and needed someone, some influence, to get get them to ‘yes.’

And in the process, maybe some of those students it helps will also follow Oliver onto some of those ‘under’ lists.


Breaking Through

Julie Bliss Mullen and Barrett Mully

Julie Bliss Mullen and Barrett Mully say the market for their product may be vast, from residential and commercial applications to domestic sales to global interest.

Aclarity Set to Take New Water-filtration Technology to the Market

As Julie Bliss Mullen and Barrett Mully talked about the potential market for their product — a new type of water-purification device that uses electricity — they struggled somewhat to do the job with numbers, as many entrepreneurs do.

So they tried words, and one in particular: vast.

By that, they meant residential and commercial applications, domestic sales, and what they hope and expect will be truly global interest.

That’s because water is a precious commodity, and as the human population continues to skyrocket, the demands on the Earth’s limited supply of fresh water have increased accordingly. Meanwhile, the search for better, less expensive methods of filtering water have been intense and ongoing.

Bliss Mullen essentially grasped the size and scope of the potential market in 2015 when, while conducting evaluations of potential new filtration products as part of her lab work under the U.S. EPA’s Water Innovation Network of Sustainable Systems (WINSSS), she essentially discovered a novel, electrochemical advanced-oxidation process, or EAOP technology.

This technology has extensive treatment capabilities — more than the filtration products currently on the market — and low power-consumption needs compared to traditional processes.

“I found that the treatment capability of this specific technology was much greater than anything I had evaluated,” she told BusinessWest, adding that she became inspired to understand what it would take to bring the technology to the market, and in 2016 filed a provisional patent with the university and subsequently enrolled in entrepreneurship courses to further understand the commercialization process.

Moving the story along, Bliss Mullen and Mully met in the spring of 2017; she was participating as a student in a graduate-level Lean Launch Pad entrepreneurship class where she was conducting customer discovery while also seeking potential business partners. He was a fellow at the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship and attending that class as a teaching assistant.

“My pitch to the class was, ‘hey, I have this cool technology, but I need someone with a little more business acumen than I have to bring this to the market,’” she recalled.

Mully became immediately compelled by the potential of the technology and the business that could be generated from it, and the two quickly agreed to partner up. They won the top award at the UMass Innovation Challenge, claiming $26,000 in seed money to help jump-start the company, which was initially named ElectroPure and later renamed Aclarity.

The company was accepted into the inaugural Berthiaume Summer Accelerator in 2017, and it used that experience to continue customer discovery, meet with mentors, work with the university toward converting the patent, develop a business strategy, and advance technology research and development. The company won additional seed funding and soon thereafter embarked on a collaboration effort with Watts Water Technologies Inc. to help bring a residential product to market, something they expect to do within the next 12 to 18 months.

So it’s been a whirlwind few years, and those are just the first few chapters in this intriguing story; the principals are now involved in writing the next several, and they will have their $27,500 prize from the VVM accelerator — and the many forms of assistance that were part of that experience — to help them in that process.

“It’s not all about the technology,” Bliss Mullen said of the complex process of taking a product to market. “You need to find a customer.”

VVM has helped with that, said the two partners, adding that the next step in their journey is to raise capital for a pilot installation on an industrial scale.

“We want to look at the scalability of the technology and how we can put a pilot site in, what that looks like,” said Mully. “And prove the technology on a larger scale; once we do that, that opens up other markets.”

The prize money from the VVM accelerator will certainly help in taking that next step, said the partners, adding that it (along with other grants secured in recent months) will be put toward R&D, product development, and marketing efforts. In a word, it will be used toward generating that commodity they need the most at this time: validation.

As for the startup ‘experience,’ if you will, the two partners, like just about everyone else in their shoes, talked about a roller-coaster ride, with lots of highs and lows. And also about expectations and how to manage them.

“We have a lot of people come up to us and say, ‘this is the next big thing. I want to be part of it; I want to help you fundraise,’” said Bliss Mullen. “You think, ‘this is going to change the world.’ And then you have other days when it feels like the end of the world.”

Mully agreed.

“You have a lot of ups and downs,” he told BusinessWest. “The wins are big wins — they’re really high highs. And then, sometimes, when you think you’re going to hit a certain milestone and it just doesn’t work out that way and you have to make those hard pivots … it can get really challenging.

“It’s not that there’s no end product, because there is,” he went on. “It’s just so intangible at times, it’s like you’re feeling your way through the dark a little bit.”

It appears things are a little brighter these days, and the VVM accelerator played a big role in that process.


ACEA

Kyle Kahveci

Kyle Kahveci

Venture Sets a New Standard for Continuing Education

Kyle Kahveci says continuing education is part of life for a wide range of healthcare professionals, from physicians to dentists to nurses. They need it to keep their licenses.

Unfortunately, also part of life are considerable amounts of wasted or underutilized time for those same healthcare professionals as they take part in those continuing-education experiences, said Kahveci, who is part of the founding team at ACEA.

That’s an acronym for the Advanced Continuing Education Assoc. And maybe the key word in the phrase is ‘advanced,’ which in this case is used to connote a way of thinking about this topic — a methodology, if you will, that goes well beyond what Kahveci called “checking the box” as individuals go about amassing the requisite number of hours of required education each year.

“There are now hundreds of thousands of different continuing-ed courses in healthcare, but there’s no easy way to sift through it all and really find the most relevant education and have that all centralized,” he explained. “What we’re doing is aggregating all that in one place so a clinician can have a much more pleasant experience across all of those ed providers by discovering the right education in the right place and the most relevant stuff for their requirements, but also their personal interests.”

That one place is an app that does everything from track activities as members attend activities to sending a notification to a member’s phone alerting him or her to the fact that they haven’t taken a continuing-ed course recently and need to do so.

The app is live, and a number of clinicians have joined through a host of partners that ACEA works with, including the Cleveland Clinic, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, said Kahveci, adding that the broad goals are to continuously improve the app and add more members.

And VVM’s accelerator program has been quite helpful with those two assignments by emphasizing the need to for customer surveys to determine specific needs and how to go about meeting them.

Elaborating, Kahveci said that, in the beginning, ACEA and its app were focused mostly on helping healthcare professionals keep track of what they’ve done when it comes to a continuing education, something that might sound easy to those who haven’t tried, but definitely isn’t, as confirmed by all those who have.

“We were hearing complaints from physicians who said, ‘after one of these courses, I take I get a certificate, and it’s oftentimes on paper, and it’s like keeping receipts for taxes,’” he recalled, adding that the partners at ACEA followed how people kept track of these certificates. One physician kept it all in a manila folder that included courses from the ’90s.

Moving the story along, he said the first app they developed was designed simply to keep track of all those certificates much better than a manila folder could. It received a solid response, and thousands of clinicians signed on, he said, but it quickly became apparent that this app needed to do more.

Specifically, it needed to help members not just after the fact, but before it — in the discovery phase, if you will — and ACEA has made that shift, with a big assist from VVM and its accelerator program.

“VVM helped us treat this like an early-stage startup,” he told BusinessWest. “We did more 100 interviews with clinicians and partners to get a sense for where to really focus in on solving their problems.”

And there is tremendous growth potential, he went on, adding that, while ACE has tens of thousands of members, that represents a tiny fraction of the number of potential members.

The value proposition for this app is that it can save clinicians up to 40 hours a year by automating much of the continuing-ed process and getting them into relevant education. And considering how busy they are, 40 hours represents a great deal of value.

Getting that message across is critical, and the company will devote much of its energy — and the $20,000 prize it won during the accelerator contest — to do just that, while also continually improving the product and building a team.

The company is currently based in Boston — an ideal location, given the many world-class healthcare facilities in that city — but as a result of connections made with potential partners here, ACEA is thinking about opening a satellite location in Springfield.

VVM and its accelerator helped the company make those connections, he said, but mostly, the experience has enabled ACEA to sharpen its focus on the customer and identify opportunities for growth.

“It’s helped us see the forest for the trees,” he noted. “It was a good experience for us to help get the organization to the next level.”

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Opinion

Despite the occasional major project landing in the region — that casino opening is only two months away — the Pioneer Valley’s economy is still driven far more by the myriad small businesses that dot the landscape.

That’s why it’s important to give entrepreneurs the tools, inspiration, and resources they need to make the risks they take in launching their enterprises worthwhile.

Our story on page 40 is always a fun assignment — our annual writeup on the winners of the Valley Venture Mentors Accelerator Awards. This year, we sat down with the entrepreneurs behind the three top winners, who received, through this program, significant funding for their projects, but, just as important, key guidance and support in taking their businesses to the next level.

Because those enterprises deal in such critical matters as clean water, continuing medical education, and equipping low-income youth to write their own entrepreneurial stories, that next level, as you’ll see by reading these accounts, may turn out to be life-changing for many — and even world-changing,

Then there’s our page 26 story on Click Workshop — perhaps a less splashy story, because no one is handing out giant checks. Rather, they’re handing over monthly payments (rather reasonable ones, at that) to participate in a community of 98 small (mostly solo) businesses that share resources and network in a refurbished former warehouse in downtown Northampton.

One of the region’s growing number of co-working spaces, Click is supporting economic energy in its city while also boosting the profile of another type of entrepreneur: the local artists and musicians to whom it offers exposure and a place to promote their creations.

These two articles may seem unrelated at first, but they both speak to the importance of creating a supportive community of entrepreneurs who understand that the success of each contributes to the success of all, by establishing Western Mass. as a place where ideas can turn into viable businesses.

“You have a lot of ups and downs. The wins are big wins — they’re really high highs,” said Barrett Mully, one of the VVM Accelerator Award winners. However, “it’s just so intangible at times, it’s like you’re feeling your way through the dark a little bit.”

Programs and organizations that support the region’s startup culture are making that journey a little bit brighter.

After all, countless entrepreneurs are taking calculated gambles every day that have nothing to do with a casino. When those risks pay off, everyone benefits.

Cover Story

Policy Shifts

Roger Crandall stops at State & Main in MassMutual’s headquarters building in Springfield.

Roger Crandall stops at State & Main in MassMutual’s headquarters building in Springfield.

Over the course of its 167-year history, MassMutual has successfully responded to changes in society and also in how business is conducted. Today, the pace of change has accelerated greatly, but the company is answering with new strategic initiatives involving everything from the design of workspaces to how individuals apply for life insurance.

They call it ‘State and Main.’

MassMutual built its former headquarters building in Springfield at that very intersection, so that may have something to do with that name. But it’s more likely a reference to the fact that this is where two of the main spines of the company’s sprawling current home on State Street come together. So that’s where many of the 4,000 people working there come together as well.

There’s a Starbucks there, as well as a small shop where people can get their electronic devices serviced, as well as a convenience store. Over the past 18 months or so, some small meeting places and workstations where people can plug in have been added in a nod to changes in how work is now done.

There is a row of these stations along one wall, which, coincidentally, was the old end point of the building before an addition was built. Where the windows once were, there are now photographs depicting work life at MassMutual decades ago.

If you’re looking for evidence of just how much things have changed, you can juxtapose a solitary worker on a laptop in one of these workspaces in front of a huge photo depicting row upon row of desks — an iconic glimpse of the workplace maybe a century ago (see photo above).

It took a long time to get from where things were in that photograph to where they are today, but the pace of change is rapidly accelerating — even when it comes to a product seemingly frozen in time, like life insurance.

While the basic insurance products haven’t changed much over time, how people research them, shop for them, and ultimately buy them have, said Roger Crandall, president and CEO of the Fortune 100 company, the only one based in the 413.

“We’re looking a lot at how to do business with people the way they want to do business,” he explained, adding that there is much that goes into this equation. “The single biggest thing that the technology revolution has done is give consumers the power to interact the way they want to interact.

“We can’t say, ‘you can only talk to us on the phone’; we can’t say, ‘you can only talk to us in person,’” he went on. “We have to be able to meet consumers where they want to be met, and that is what we call an omni-channel world.”

Responding to this new landscape is just one of the many organizational focal points for Crandall and MassMutual, with the emphasis on ‘many.’ Others include those aforementioned changes in the way people work, he told BusinessWest, adding that the company’s headquarters has seen a number of significant changes in response to trends involving more open spaces and the need to bring great minds together, not keep them apart.

As a result, there are far fewer of those large, private offices that once dominated large financial-services companies and often defined how high one had risen in the ranks, and much more of those open workspaces like those along State and Main.

A MassMutual employee gets some work done in front of an image that Roger Crandall calls “a look back in time.”

A MassMutual employee gets some work done in front of an image that Roger Crandall calls “a look back in time.”

These changes are taking place at all of MassMutual’s facilities, which leads to another of those focal points, a headline-generating consolidation and realignment of facilities that will see the company significantly increase its presence — on both ends of the Bay State.

Indeed, there will be $50 million in investments to the Springfield facility, with an estimated 1,500 more employees working there, many of them commuting to that facility instead of the one in Enfield, Conn., which is being closed.

Meanwhile, in Boston, MassMutual will build a new facility in the Seaport District that will be home to about 1,000 workers. The company will look to capitalize on the city’s emergence as a global leader and its already established ability to retain many of the young people who come there to be educated as a way to help attract and retain top talent for years to come.

Still another focal point for the company is Springfield and the region it serves as its unofficial capital, said Crandall, adding that, while the company’s commitment to the City of Homes has come into question — the sale of Tower Square triggered much of that speculation — he said it is as strong as ever, with involvement in everything from education and workforce development to entrepreneurship and new-business development.

Overall, the city has rebounded nicely from the financial turmoil of a decade or so ago, and the opening of MGM Springfield in a few months constitutes just one of many signs of progress, said Crandall, declaring that “Springfield has its mojo back.” (Much more on those thoughts later).

For this issue, BusinessWest caught up with Crandall for a wide-ranging interview that touched on everything from Springfield and its mojo to Boston and the latest addition to its business landscape, to all those changes at State and Main and what they mean for this 167-year-old company.

Space Exploration

That interview took place in Crandall’s spacious office on the second floor of its headquarters building. As he gestured toward his surroundings, Crandall, who has occupied them since 2010, admitted candidly that he wasn’t exactly sure what would become of them as MassMutual undertakes that realignment of its facilities to accommodate more employees and a changing workplace. He did know that it won’t look like it does now.

“This office is a dinosaur; no one would build an office like this in a new building,” he told BusinessWest. “This space may very well have 20 people in it when we’re all done — there’s plenty of room for 20 people in here in a modern configuration.”

He was more certain about many other things, especially the company’s changing footprint when it comes to facilities. It will be a smaller, more efficient footprint, he noted, one shaped to address a number of challenges and opportunities moving forward.

This change to the landscape has resulted from some seismic shifts over the past several years, especially a number of acquisitions — including Metlife’s retail advisor force, the Metlife Premier Client Group (MPCG) in the summer of 2016 — that left the company with a dispersed portfolio of facilities, and also changing technology, which, as noted, has altered everything from how people buy products to how they work.

These changes prompted the company to take a much-needed step back, said Crandall, before it could decide how to move forward.

“We said, ‘this is a good time to step back and say, ‘how is our geographic footprint aligned with what we’re trying to do from a long-term perspective?’” he recalled. “And that prompted us to take a look at a whole variety of options.”

Elaborating, he said recent acquisitions left the company with facilities in Charlotte, N.C., Memphis, Tenn., Phoenix, Ariz., Somerset, N.J., Amherst, and other locations. And while advancing technology allows people in remote offices to communicate effectively, consolidating those offices emerged as the option that made the most sense.

“Although people work in different ways and the ability to work remotely is greater than ever because of technology, it’s really important to have more people interacting with each other,” he explained, “to get the best ideas, the best execution, and to take advantage of the diversity our workforce has.

“It’s great to be able to connect through devices, but face-to-face meetings are really important,” he went on, noting that roughly 2,000 employees will be relocated to Massachusetts from locations in other states. “So we liked the idea of getting to a smaller footprint.”

That makes sense on other levels as well, he noted, adding that the company was really only using about 60% of its facilities in Springfield and 60% of its facilities in Enfield.

At the same time, the company has put an even greater emphasis on the broad issue of workforce development and the challenge of attracting and retaining top talent.

And this combination of factors prompted a long, hard look at Boston — a city that has drawn similar looks from a host of other major corporations — and then hard action.

“We thought about how to set ourselves up to attract the best and the brightest for the next 25 or 30 years,” said Crandall. “And that’s where having a location in Boston, which has really emerged as a global city in the last decade, came to the forefront.

“Boston has become a true world leader,” he went on. “It’s always been a world leader in education, and it’s become a world leader in medicine and life sciences, and it’s also a very significant financial center as well. People go to school there, and they want to stay there.”

But while MassMutual will build a new facility in Boston’s Seaport District at 1 Marina Park, it will maintain a strong presence at both ends of the state, said Crandall, adding that Springfield will remain the company’s home.

Once used as basketball courts, space on the fourth floor of MassMutual’s headquarters building is now dedicated to meeting spaces known collectively as the ‘tree rooms.’

Once used as basketball courts, space on the fourth floor of MassMutual’s headquarters building is now dedicated to meeting spaces known collectively as the ‘tree rooms.’

The fact that it is only 90 minutes away on the Turnpike from the Boston offices (traffic permitting) should bring a number of benefits, he noted.

“It’s very, very different running a company where people can drive back and forth, and running a company where you have to get on a plane,” he noted. “And from that culture perspective, that became important to us as well.”

Room for Improvement

As for the facilities in Springfield, Crandall told BusinessWest that what’s planned is a reconfiguration and not an expansion in the true sense of the word.

But more people will be working at that location — and turning up at State and Main for lattes, to have their phone repaired, to get their dry cleaning, and, increasingly, to get some work done as well.

As Crandall noted earlier, there will be fewer private offices moving forward and more open spaces where people can work and collaborate as the company strives to moves away from a historical hierarchy that has defined much of its history and that of other financial-services giants as well.

The company has already taken a number of significant steps in this direction, he went on, referencing rows of tables where people can work on laptops, spaces where a few people can gather and talk, and larger, technology-equipped meeting spaces, such as those now known simply as the ‘tree rooms.’

There’s ‘Birch,’ ‘Elm,’ ‘Maple,’ ‘Hemlock,’ and others. These are meeting facilities created on the fourth floor of the headquarters building — space devoted to basketball courts until 1980 and for less ornate (and modern) meeting spaces in recent years.

Meanwhile, there are more meeting spaces on the ground floor just off State and Main that, like the ones a few floors up, are always occupied and need to be booked well in advance. These rooms are named for national parks, and include ‘Yosemite,’ ‘Zion,’ ‘Everglades,’ and ‘Glacier.’

As for what’s going on in all those meeting rooms, Crandall said the company is focusing its efforts in many directions, including what he called “a digitization of everything we do.”

And that brings him back to that omni-channel world he mentioned and the need to meet consumers where they want to be met.

“We’re basically building a digital insurance company from scratch to disrupt ourselves,” he explained. “It’s going to give us the ability to be much more responsive to consumer demands, and have much lower costs, which will enable us take advantage of the next big opportunity, which is to broadly offer more Americans insurance.”

Elaborating, he said there are 35 million American families with no insurance at all, and insurance penetration in this country is among the lowest in the world. “When we go out and do focus groups and ask people if they need life insurance, 70% say ‘yes,’” he said. “And 50% of the people who have life insurance say they need more life insurance, so there is this big unmet need.”

There are many reasons for this, he said, including the fact that fewer people are working for the kinds of large companies that offer life insurance as a benefit, and more are working for smaller ventures that don’t, or are self-employed.

To meet that need, the company is responding proactively with products and processes that can put insurance within reach and bring the numbers from those surveys down.

“No normal person sits down and thinks about the process of buying life insurance,” he said. “But we took a look at that process a few years ago and determined that it was largely the same as it was in 1995, 1985, and, arguably, 1975 — a paper-based application that got sent through snail mail to an underwriter, which triggered a paramed going to someone’s house, and a process that begins with someone standing on a scale and goes downhill, from a consumer’s perspective, to 25 days later getting told you’re not the best risk class and you’re going to have to pay more for the product than you thought.”

To change that equation, the company’s data-science team began working with an accumulated asset — the applications taken for life insurance over the years — and built a machine-learning mortality-scoring model.

“That model, with the support of reinsurers, is being used to underwrite 75% of the policies MassMutual issues,” he went on, adding that this process often lowers the time required to get approval — down to one day for those who are younger and in good health — and brings down the cost of that insurance.

And this is just one example of this digitization process, which doubles as a growth strategy.

“What really matters to us in the long run is being able to have the talent we need to execute our mission,” Crandall explained, “to help people secure their future and protect the ones they love, and to continue the growth trajectory we’ve been on — we’re now the biggest seller of whole life insurance in the country and are the second-biggest seller of all life insurance in the country.”

Paying Dividends

As MassMutual continues to respond to a changing landscape for a wide range of business perspectives, it is doing the same when it comes to its work within the community and especially its home city of Springfield, said Crandall.

He noted that there have been many forms of progress in recent years, from new vibrancy downtown to the city’s much-improved fiscal health, to a better perception of the city across the state and even outside it.

Roger Crandall says MassMutual is essentially building a digital insurance company from scratch “to disrupt ourselves.”

Roger Crandall says MassMutual is essentially building a digital insurance company from scratch “to disrupt ourselves.”

“The vibe in Springfield is as positive as I’ve seen it in 30 years,” he said when asked to offer his assessment, adding quickly that there are many areas of need and concern, and MassMutual and its foundation are partnering with others to help address many of them.

Especially those in the broad realm of education.

Noting the importance of education to attaining a job in today’s technology-based economy, Crandall said MassMutual’s commitment to education takes many forms, from financial-literacy programs involving middle-schoolers to a $15 million commitment to help create a sustainable workforce in data science.

“We know that, in the long run, better educational outcomes are such a powerful way to change people’s trajectories in life,” he explained, adding that it starts with getting individuals not only through high school, but graduating with the skills they will need to thrive in this economy.

But the company’s commitment to the city and the region — what Crandall called ‘enabling philanthropy’ — encompasses many different aspects of economic development, he went on, listing, for example, its work with DevelopSpringfield to revitalize neighborhoods across the city, and its backing of Valley Venture Mentors ($2 million to date) and financing of startups that pledge to put down roots in the region.

There has also been support of workforce-development initiatives, such as a training center for call-center employees at Springfield Technical Community College and a similar initiative involving the precision-manufacturing sector.

Then there’s the company’s support of ROCA, the agency that works with incarcerated individuals, usually repeat offenders, to help them change the course of their life and succeed outside the prison walls.

“There is no greater waste of a person’s potential or, frankly, the economic potential of our community than having a large group of young men who are unemployable or in prison,” said Crandall. “When you talk to a young man who’s been in prison who’s now a member of the carpenter’s union, getting married and having a child, and buying a home … to think about where he is as opposed to when he was 18 — that’s inspiring.”

Overall, Crandall, deploying that word ‘mojo,’ said the city has not only many positive developments breaking its way, but also more confidence and self-esteem. Perhaps even more important — and those factors are significant in their own right — is the fact that those outside the city are sharing those sentiments.

To get that point across, he relayed a recent conversation he had while visiting one of the company’s agencies in Brooklyn, a borough that had more than its share of problems a generation ago but has morphed into one of the hottest communities in the country.

“I was talking to one of our agents, probably in his mid-30s, and he said, ‘I just invested in a property in Springfield, Massachusetts,’” he recalled, adding that he responded by asking why this individual wasn’t investing in Brooklyn instead. “He said, ‘I’ve done great here in Brooklyn, but Springfield reminds me of Brooklyn 20 years ago.”

Past Is Prologue

Referencing those pictures placed where the windows were on the old exterior wall of the State Street facility, Crandall said each image was designed to be “a look back in time.”

“It’s a pretty neat historical kind of twist that adds an interesting flair to that area,” he said, noting that looking back is much easier — and generally more fun — than trying to look forward, anticipate the future, and prepare for it.

But that’s just what MassMutual is doing, and those exercises define the many strategic initiatives at the company — everything from its soon-to-be-much-smaller geographic footprint to its efforts to meet customers when and how they want to be met, to philanthropic efforts within the community focused on everything from education to providing new, productive lives for the incarcerated.

Crandall doesn’t know what his current office will look like in a year or two, but he does know it won’t look like it does now. And there may be 20 people working in that space.

It’s a dinosaur that’s extinct. The company is moving on from it, reconfiguring, becoming more efficient, and responding proactively to change.

And it’s doing that with every aspect of an altered landscape.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Manufacturing Sections

Showing Their Metal

Bob LeDuc, seen here with sons Kurt, left, and Eric, started in a chicken coop and has recorded steady growth ever since.

Bob LeDuc, seen here with sons Kurt, left, and Eric, started in a chicken coop and has recorded steady growth ever since.

Bob Leduc says that, in many respects, there’s been a world of change since he affixed his last name to a sheet-metal fabrication company a half-century or so ago.

After all, he got his start in a 20-by-40-foot chicken coop in his backyard, taking some odd jobs and essentially moonlighting to help feed his growing family. Today, the venture he launched, RR LeDuc Corp., is in a state-of-the-art facility on Bobala Road in Holyoke near the West Springfield, and he has established clients ranging from Lockheed Martin to IBM to Whalley Computer Associates. He also has about 50 people working for him, including two of his sons, Eric and Kurt, both serving in vice presidents’ roles.

But looking at things another way, things really haven’t changed a whole lot since the photo on display in the company’s conference room was taken, the one with Bob sporting decidedly early ’70s clothing and a hairstyle to match, an image he finds almost cringeworthy today.

For starters, the 81-year-old not only comes to work every day, he is remarkably hands-on and involved in seemingly everything taking place at the plant — just as he did when he was by himself in the chicken coop, when that assignment was much easier.

More importantly, he noted, business is still being done just like it was back then, with a laser focus on the customer, on being flexible and responsive, and on not only meeting but exceeding expectations, an operating mindset that has created a steady growth curve over five decades.

“One of the keys to staying in business this long is really knowing your customer and partnering with them to meet their needs,” he said while summing up what amounts to his success formula.

Overall, the past 50 years have been marked by evolution and expansion. Indeed, the company that started by fabricating and installing HVAC ductwork and catwalks in Holyoke’s paper and textile mills — usually on weekends when the machines were quiet — now produces a wide range of metal enclosures and other products from a host of business sectors, including defense, communications, medical, electronics, and many others.

“All the cool stuff is on the inside, but we make the skin,” said Eric LeDuc, adding that the company fabricates this skin (enclosures) for everything from computers to ATM machines to portable generators.

For this issue and its focus on manufacturing, BusinessWest talked with the LeDucs on the occasion of their silver anniversary about where this company’s been, and where these two generations of leaders want it to go.

Manufacturing Milestone

The LeDuc company celebrated 50 years in style late last fall.

There was a party on the front lawn featuring a jazz band and catering by the Log Cabin. The invitation list included customers, vendors, a few elected officials, and employees past and present.

Those gathered were marking a half-century in business, a considerable feat in its own right, but they were really celebrating all it took to reach that milestone — entrepreneurship, evolution, persistence, innovation, and teamwork.

Those qualities came through clearly as the LeDucs collectively — one would often pick up where the other left off and fill in needed information — related the story of their first half-century in business.

The chicken coop gets brought up often, because it provides a colorful, down-to-earth start to the story. But it is only the first chapter.

Actually, we probably need to go back a little further, to the Holyoke Trade School, where LeDuc, concentrating on sheet metal, graduated in 1954. He served a four-year apprenticeship with the E.H. Friedrich Co., worked there for a few years, and then worked for a few other firms, including one in New Haven, which he served as supervisor, that specialized in HVAC ductwork.

He built a house in Chicopee, and on the lot was a World War II chicken coop, he told BusinessWest, adding that soon thereafter he began that aforementioned moonlighting.

“I bought some sheet-metal-bending equipment and shearing and welding equipment as well,” he recalled. “After eight hours of work, I’d come home, eat supper, and work until Jack Parr came on.” (That would be 11:30 p.m., for those too young to know that Parr preceded Johnny Carson as host of the Tonight Show).

In that chicken coop, the elder LeDuc mostly handled the HVAC ductwork he had become versed in, and as his workload became more steady, he eventually quit his day job — and soon flew the chicken coop — and moved into a sub-basement in a building on Sargeant Street.

His client list was dominated by the paper and textile mills surrounding him, and for those companies, LeDuc fabricated ductwork and also handled so-called trim work on the paper machines. He soon gained a reputation for quality work and flexibility that enabled him to stay busy.

“I would work for a couple of hours, change clothes, and go out and make sales calls,” he told BusinessWest. “I remember one customer saying, ‘what can you do for us that the people working for us now can’t do?’ I said ‘I can work for straight time on Saturdays and Sundays.’ That raised some eyebrows, but most of their machines were down on the weekend, so that’s when they needed someone.”

The work would evolve over time, involving a shift to working with stainless steel, which required investments in new equipment, and new assignments such as catwalks, guards for machinery, and exhaust hoods.

As the mills closed down or moved south in the ’70s and ’80s, the LeDuc company had to reinvent itself, said Eric, who, like Kurt, essentially grew up in the company, starting on the shop floor and working his way up. And it did, becoming a precision sheet-metal fabricator, essentially a contract manufacturer serving a wide range of clients.

There would be a move from Sargeant Street to Samosett Street in the Flats area, several expansions of the location there, and then a major investment in a new, 60,000-square-foot building on Bobala Road.

In the early ’90s, the company was approached by Atlas Copco about adding powder coating of the casings (skin) LeDuc was manufacturing for its portable generators to its roster of services.

“There was no one in this country that was doing it at that time,” Bob LeDuc recalled, adding that powder coating has become a strong component of the company’s overall roster of services.

Today, the company has a diverse portfolio of clients and an equally diverse portfolio of products it produces for them. And one of the keys to both is a tradition of continually investing in state-of-the-art technology, said Eric, noting that the company has made great strides in automated, or lights-out, manufacturing, as it’s called, because it can be done 24/7, or when the lights are out, at least for employees.

Recent additions to the shop floor, complete with many letters and numbers in their names, include:

• An EMK3610NT CNC punch press with ASR multi-shelf sheet loader, which enables multiple programs to run unassisted 24/7;

• The Astro 100NT automated bending robot, which, as name suggests, is the answer for forming parts unassisted (automated tool changing allows the sequencing of multiple programs);

• The FO 3015NT 4,000-watt laser, capable of cutting steel and aluminum in a wide range of thicknesses; and

• The EM3610NT CNC punch press, which, along with lights-out manufacturing, allows mass production of high-quality parts.

There are many other pieces of equipment on the floor, said Eric, adding that all those numbers and letters add up to flexibility and responsiveness, qualities that have enabled the company to continue to grow its client list over the years.

Shining Examples

There are a few other artifacts in the company’s conference room, including the time-worn ‘RR LeDuc’ sign that hung on the property on Sargeant Street.

It stands as another indicator of just how much things have changed for this company since Bob LeDuc would come back in from the chicken coop in time to watch Jack Parr.

But equally important is what hasn’t changed in all that time — the focus on the customer and forming a partnership with it to meet goals and needs.

That focus has enabled the company to shape opportunities in the same way that it has shaped metal.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Departments People on the Move
Moira Maguire

Moira Maguire

Holyoke Community College recently welcomed Moira Maguire as its new dean of Social Sciences. Maguire most recently served as dean of Liberal Arts at Schenectady County Community College in New York. Before that, she spent 12 years as a professor of history at the University of Arkansas in Little Rock, where she was a tenured faculty member and served as a department chair and course coordinator. She holds a Ph.D. in history from American University, a master’s degree in history from Northeastern University, and a bachelor’s degree in political science and history from George Washington University. As a teacher and scholar specializing in 20th-century Irish history, Maguire spent more than 10 years at the University of Ireland Maynooth, where her research on infanticide and the Irish government’s care of unwed mothers and their children led to many articles and a book, Cherished Equally? Precarious Childhood in Independent Ireland. She has also worked as a consultant for the BBC on documentaries related to her research. As dean of Social Science, she will oversee six academic departments: Education, Criminal Justice, Human Services, Critical Cultural Studies (Economics, Geography, History, Philosophy, Political Science, and Women’s Studies), Psychology, and Sociology/Anthropology.

•••••

Sonya Stephens, the acting president of Mount Holyoke College, has been named the college’s 19th president, effective July 1. The Mount Holyoke College board of trustees announced its decision to appoint Stephens on April 23 after an extensive presidential selection process that began in January. A formal inauguration will be held in September. The decision was unanimous. Stephens was made acting president in July 2016. During her tenure, she has overseen the implementation of the Plan for Mount Holyoke 2021 and been focused on ensuring the college’s long-term financial stability. Other key efforts include the creation of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Initiative, which led to the annual BOOM! (Building on Our Momentum) learning conference and to the hiring of the college’s first chief diversity officer. Stephens led the development of the college’s comprehensive self-study for re-accreditation by the New England Assoc. of Schools and Colleges, and launched the Community Center construction and the opening of the Dining Commons. She is also overseeing the college’s commitment to reach carbon neutrality by its bicentennial in 2037.

•••••

Elissa Langevin

Elissa Langevin

Lee McCarthy

Lee McCarthy

Shelley Daughdrill

Shelley Daughdrill

Lori Jarrett

Lori Jarrett

Celia Alvarado

Celia Alvarado

Alicia Pare

Alicia Pare

Florence Bank has promoted three employees to oversee the management of branches within their designated regions. Elissa Langevin has been named vice president and area manager for the bank’s main office in Florence, Lee McCarthy will serve as vice president and area manager for the King Street office in Northampton, Shelley Daughdrill and will hold the role of vice president and area manager for the Belchertown branch. Langevin is a 10-year employee of Florence Bank. Formerly, she was vice president and branch manager of the main office in Florence. During her tenure at the bank, Langevin has been the recipient of Florence Bank’s Community Service Award, which provides recognition to employees who are actively involved in community organizations. She serves as the current treasurer of the Belchertown Day School and has served as a board member for Junior Achievement of Western Massachusetts. She has also served as board member and president of the East of the River Five Town Chamber of Commerce. McCarthy is a 15-year employee of Florence Bank. Formerly, she was vice president and branch manager of the King Street office. During her tenure at the bank, McCarthy has served as consumer lending officer and branch manager. She is a volunteer for the United Way of Hampshire County and serves on its Community Allocation Committee. In 2015, she was recognized by the United Way as an honoree for the Community Champion Award, presented to a community member who has made a significant contribution to the organization’s mission of creating positive and lasting change in Hampshire County. Daughdrill is a 12-year employee of Florence Bank. Formerly, she served as vice president and branch manager of the Amherst and Belchertown offices. She has been the recipient of the bank’s President’s Award and Community Service Award. She is a board member, attendance chair, and auction committee member for the Amherst Rotary Club, and she also serves on the development committee for the Amherst Survival Center. Meanwhile, Florence Bank has also hired three new employees to serve in various positions. Lori Jarrett will serve as assistant controller in the Finance Department in the main office in Florence, Celia Alvarado was named portfolio officer/commercial loan origination, and Alicia Pare was named to the position of cash management relationship officer. Jarrett holds a master’s degree in accounting from Western New England University. She volunteers for area nonprofits, including Riverside Industries, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Hampshire County, and Safe Passage, and she runs in the Apple-a-Day 5K, which benefits the elementary schools of Easthampton. Alvarado joined Florence Bank in February with nearly 10 years of banking experience. She currently studies at the New England College of Business, where she’s working on a bachelor’s degree in accounting and finance. She volunteers for Junior Achievement of Western Massachusetts and has served on its board in the past. Pare earned a bachelor’s degree in business management from Assumption College in Worcester. In 2014, she received Florence Bank’s prestigious President’s Club Award, an annual tradition that recognizes outstanding performance, customer service, and overall contribution to Florence Bank.

•••••

Mark Fuller, current dean and Thomas O’Brien Endowed Chair at Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst, has been appointed the new vice chancellor for Development and Alumni Relations by UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy. Fuller will succeed Michael Leto, who announced his upcoming retirement last fall. As the university’s chief advancement officer, Fuller will serve on the chancellor’s leadership team and be responsible for short- and long-term plans to improve private support as well as cultivate strong relationships with UMass alumni and supporters. UMass Amherst, the Commonwealth’s flagship campus, has more than 200,000 living alumni. Fuller has led UMass’s Isenberg School of Management since 2009. Under Fuller’s leadership, Isenberg has generated a four-fold increase in annual gift performance since 2010; received a $10 million endowment to create the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship; increased student giving ten-fold; secured private support for the new, $62 million Business Innovation Wing; and created 12 new endowed faculty positions. Prior to coming to UMass Amherst, Fuller was a professor and chair of the Department of Information Systems and holder of the Philip L. Kays Distinguished Professorship in Management Information Systems at Washington State University. He received his master’s degree in management and his Ph.D. in management information systems from the University of Arizona’s Eller College of Management. His research focuses on virtual teamwork, technology-supported learning, and trust and efficacy in technology-mediated environments. Prior to Washington State, Fuller was an associate professor at the Hankamer School of Business at Baylor University.

•••••

Maureen “Maura” Guzik

Maureen “Maura” Guzik

Casey Cusson

Casey Cusson

Erin Tautznik

Erin Tautznik

Janet Rosenkranz

Janet Rosenkranz

Michael Tucker, president and CEO of Greenfield Cooperative Bank, announced one new hire as well as three promotions. Maureen “Maura” Guzik joined Greenfield Cooperative Bank as vice president, Commercial Loans. She will be responsible for developing new commercial business in Hampshire County with the Northampton Cooperative division of the bank. She will be based in the bank’s Triangle Street branch in Amherst. She has more than 34 years of commercial banking experience. Guzik is a board member of the Northwestern District Attorney’s Children Advocacy Center and chairperson of the Belchertown Council on Aging. She is also active with the Amherst Area and Greater Northampton chambers of commerce. She earned her bachelor’s degree from St. Anselm’s College and her MBA from American International College. Casey Cusson has been promoted to assistant vice president and branch manager of the bank’s Shelburne Falls location. He has more than 15 years of management experience and joined Greenfield Cooperative Bank in June 2017. He is a board member on the Shelburne Falls Area Business Assoc. He earned his bachelor’s degree in business from UMass Amherst and will attend the New England School of Banking at Babson College beginning in May. Erin Tautznik was promoted to branch officer. With more than 13 years of banking experience, she is responsible for managing the bank’s 67 King St., Northampton office. She joined Northampton Cooperative Bank in 2004 and has attended Holyoke Community College and numerous banking seminars and courses. She is also a volunteer with the JFK Middle School’s after-school program. Janet Rosenkranz, credit officer, has additionally been named the Credit Department manager, and is now responsible for the bank’s Credit Department staff and coordinating its activities. She joined the bank in 2016 and has more than 18 years of experience in banking. She is a volunteer with the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts. She received her bachelor’s degree at UMass Amherst and will attend the National School of Banking at the Wharton School beginning in June.

•••••

Brian Kapitulik has accepted the position of dean of Business, Information Technology, Professional Studies, and Social Sciences at Greenfield Community College (GCC). “After a thorough search, we were excited to offer the position of dean to Brian,” said Catherine Seaver, chief Academic Affairs officer. Kapitulik has 18 years of professional experience in the Massachusetts public higher-education system and, in particular, during the last decade, in community college. Before his current role, he was chair of the Department of Social Sciences and professor of Sociology at GCC. He has also taught at UMass Amherst and Quinsigamond Community College. During this time, he evaluated and developed curriculum, assessed and reviewed programs, created new courses, and hired and mentored new faculty, all while teaching students, publishing papers, organizing professional-development workshops in his field, and serving the college in a number of leadership capacities ranging from search committees to faculty mentor for online pedagogy.

•••••

The Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts’ newly launched arts initiative, ValleyCreates, announced the appointment of five community advisors to support the initiative’s core mission to address underserved communities’ access to arts and culture funding and resources. Gina Beavers, Arts and Culture editor for the Valley Advocate, will serve as a liaison to arts and culture organizations in Hampshire and Hampden counties. Vanessa Pabón-Hernandez, director of Community Engagement and Education for WGBY, will serve as the initiative’s liaison to arts organizations in Hampden County. Matthew Glassman, co-artistic director ensemble of Double Edge Theater in Ashfield, will serve as a liaison to rural arts and culture organizations with a focus on Franklin County. Rosemary Tracy Woods, executive director and chief curator of the nonprofit Art for the Soul Gallery in Springfield, will serve as the ValleyCreates events curator. Finally, Kent Alexander will serve as the initiative’s diversity, equity, and inclusion facilitator. He brings with him years of experience conducting anti-racism and social-justice-focused workshops for various local organizations. Each community advisor will contribute up to eight hours per month for one year and will receive a stipend. ValleyCreates is supported by the Barr Foundation, through the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts’ participation in the Creative Commonwealth Initiative.

•••••

Jeanne Hardy, associate professor of Chemistry, whose research focuses on a key protein linked to neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, is being recognized with the inaugural Mahoney Life Sciences Prize at UMass Amherst. A panel of expert judges from the life-sciences sector observed that the “biomedical implications are significant” and “this could turn out to be one of ‘the’ pivotal studies in the effort to combat Alzheimer’s.” Hardy will receive the prize and present her research with life-sciences experts and UMass officials and scientists at a breakfast ceremony on Tuesday, June 19 at the UMass Club in Boston. Established by UMass Amherst alumni Richard, Robert, and William Mahoney, the $10,000 prize is intended to recognize scientists from the university’s College of Natural Sciences whose work significantly advances connections between research and industry. The prize will be awarded annually to one faculty member who is the principal author of a peer-reviewed paper about original research. Eligible papers can be on any topic in the life sciences that focuses on new research with translatable applications to industry and society. Hardy’s research paper, “Multiple Proteolytic Events in Caspase-6 Self-activation Impacts Conformations of Discrete Structural Regions,” was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in September 2017.

•••••

Baystate Franklin Medical Center announced that two interim leaders have accepted permanent positions at the community hospital. Ron Bryant has been named president, Baystate Franklin Medical Center/Northern Region, in addition to his continued role as president, Baystate Noble Hospital. Deb Provost has been named chief nursing officer and chief administrative officer, Baystate Franklin Medical Center/Northern Region, in addition to her continued role as chief regulatory officer, Baystate Health. Both have been serving in these roles in an interim capacity. Since Bryant’s interim appointment in January, he has held many open forums focusing on employee engagement and the need for a strong collaborative culture, advancing system integration and re-emphasizing the health system’s mission from a patient and employee perspective. Provost has been serving in the interim role of vice president of Patient Care Services and chief nursing officer at Baystate Franklin since November. Since her appointment, she has worked collaboratively with Baystate Franklin Medical Center’s leaders and team members to help ensure safe, high-quality care to the residents of Franklin County. Provost has been with Baystate Health for 41 years and has served as vice president, Surgery and Anesthesia and as interim chief nursing officer at Baystate Medical Center.

40 Under 40 Class of 2018

Partner, Cofab Design and Brick Coworkshop; Age 27; Education: BS, Boston University

Mike Stone

Mike Stone

Stone is a mechanical engineer and designer who’s into multi-disciplinary projects, moving parts, products, machines, prototypes, and hammer swinging. He’s a partner at Cofab Design, a product design and development studio, and a cofounder of Brick Coworkshop, a shared workspace, both located in Holyoke. He’s also part of the team at AF, a national pop-up event series.

What did you want to be when you grew up? A scientist — science rules. Biology and physics had my attention for a while. Unfortunately, that same attention span disposes me to detailed, focused research work, so I ended up in the design world.

How do you define success? I feel successful if I am always learning and reading, always supporting and listening to my collaborators and community, and continually working to realize or facilitate new and energizing projects.

What do you like most about Western Massachusetts? I love the fact that our region is a crossroads of sorts. Being from the area, I’m excited to see positive energy and projects in many towns and cities. I think the relative size of the region lends itself to a higher likelihood that we can have conversations and initiatives that make this a better place to live for everyone — as well as a hub for art, design, entrepreneurship, and other pursuits.

What goal do you set for yourself at the start of each day? If I’m feeling ‘on’ for a given day, my goal is to get through a good swath of substantive to-do list items. If I’m feeling ‘off,’ my goal is to make it through to the next day.

What actor would play you in a movie about your life? Andy Samberg circa 2005.

What are you passionate about? I’m a chronic generalist (terminal generalist may be more appropriate), so I like to dabble with lots of things. I’m passionate about the design world (product, graphic, architecture, planning, etc.). I love to build things. I read fiction and nonfiction as constantly as I can and love print publications. I’ve been trying to play music more often lately, and have a long list of projects to complete and things to learn. Being involved with Brick has turned me on to the general process of community building, and I’m interested to learn and apply more in that discipline.

 

Photography  by Leah Martin Photography

40 Under 40 Class of 2018

Co-founder, LOOC Marketing; Realtor, Keller Williams Realty; Age 29; Education: BBA, American International College

Cindy Gaynor

Cindy Gaynor

Gaynor has a zeal for self-empowerment and entrepreneurship. She firmly believes in the ethics of hard work and development, and is always willing to learn more, grow more, and push herself outside of her comfort zones. She is connected to her community, serving and supporting local organizations such as the Assoc. of Black Business and Professionals, Buy Springfield Now, and much more. Despite her busy schedule, her favorite role to fulfill is that of being a supermom.

How do you define success? Success to me is measured by the output of my work, not the input alone. I feel that sometimes, we may work hard at something and relish the hard work alone, without assessing whether or not that work actually helped us achieve the necessary goal. The process alone is not enough.

What three words best describe you? Resilient, tenacious, resourceful.

Who has been your best mentor, and why? LaTonia Monroe Naylor has been a phenomenal woman to know, and I am inspired by her exceptional leadership. A woman of her word and of action, I watch her go the extra mile for everyone she loves, and for this community. Having her in my life as a mentor has truly been a blessing, and I am looking forward not only to the many heights we will reach together, but to those I will personally reach as a result of her mentorship.

What are you passionate about? I am passionate about my business, and the legacy that it will allow me to leave behind for my son. I want him to see that, as a single mother, I never made excuses and did not allow anything to hold me back. Being an entrepreneur is not easy. If it were, everyone would do it. Nonetheless, for me, it is worth it because it allows me to accomplish so much while also setting an example for the young man I am raising.

What will work colleagues say at your funeral? Colleagues will say I was a joy to work with. They will speak of my positivity and how I always made an effort to ensure that we always found true joy within ourselves. They will speak of my empathy with regard to others, and how I did not have a selfish bone in my body. They will also speak of my perseverance and drive to overcome any obstacle that came my way. A true problem solver, I always sought to help others overcome their tribulations as well.


Photography by Leah Martin Photography

Daily News

AMHERST — Mark Fuller, current dean and Thomas O’Brien Endowed Chair at Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst, has been appointed the new vice chancellor for Development and Alumni Relations by UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy.

Fuller will succeed Michael Leto, who announced his upcoming retirement last fall. As the university’s chief advancement officer, Fuller will serve on the chancellor’s leadership team and be responsible for short- and long-term plans to improve private support as well as cultivate strong relationships with UMass alumni and supporters. UMass Amherst, the Commonwealth’s flagship campus, has more than 200,000 living alumni.

“Mark is a transformative leader who has fostered a culture of excellence at the Isenberg School of Management, building relationships and growing engagement with alumni of all ages and from a variety of personal and professional backgrounds,” said Subbaswamy. “Educating the next generation of leaders and innovators in Massachusetts will require new levels of private support, as well as public investment, and Mark has the skills, passion, and vision to play a lead role in our success. I am excited to welcome Mark to this critically important position.”

Fuller has led UMass’s Isenberg School of Management since 2009. Under Fuller’s leadership, Isenberg has generated a four-fold increase in annual gift performance since 2010; received a $10 million endowment to create the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship; increased student giving ten-fold; secured private support for the new, $62 million Business Innovation Wing; and created 12 new endowed faculty positions.

“I’m honored and excited to find a new way that I can serve the entire campus,” said Fuller. “Thanks to the incredible vision and leadership of Chancellor Subbaswamy, and Vice Chancellor Mike Leto’s excellent work in guiding us through our last highly successful capital campaign, the campus is poised for great things. Garnering alumni support for the university, in all of its forms, is absolutely critical to our future as a top-20 public university, and I’m passionate about helping make that happen.”

Prior to coming to UMass Amherst, Fuller was a professor and chair of the Department of Information Systems and holder of the Philip L. Kays Distinguished Professorship in Management Information Systems at Washington State University. He received his master’s degree in management and his Ph.D. in management information systems from the University of Arizona’s Eller College of Management. His research focuses on virtual teamwork, technology-supported learning, and trust and efficacy in technology-mediated environments. Prior to Washington State, Fuller was an associate professor at the Hankamer School of Business at Baylor University.

Daily News

HOLYOKE — The Harold Grinspoon Charitable Foundation’s Entrepreneurship Initiative will mark its 15th year with an evening of exhibits, contests, and celebration at the Log Cabin in Holyoke on Wednesday, April 25. Early arrivers at 5 p.m. will be treated to an entrepreneur exhibit featuring students who have already started their own businesses or are on the cusp of doing so.

“Though I’m a seasoned entrepreneur, I get a thrill every year from seeing these young, innovative business minds at work,” said philanthropist Harold Grinspoon.

Following the exhibition at 6:45 p.m., six local banks will sponsor a live elevator-pitch competition for area college students, with contestants from 14 area colleges and universities delivering 90-second pitches. The top three winners will receive prizes of $750. Sponsors are Berkshire Bank, Country Bank, KeyBank, PeoplesBank, United Bank Foundation, and Westfield Bank.

Caroline Pam of Kitchen Garden Farm in Sunderland will deliver the keynote speech. She and her husband have expanded their organic farm from one acre in 2006 to 50 acres today. In addition, they produce an award-winning sriracha sauce. The emcee for the event is Paul Silva, manager of River Valley Investors.

A brief awards ceremony will conclude the evening, honoring students from the 14 participating colleges and universities: American International College, Amherst College, Bay Path University, Elms College, Greenfield Community College, Hampshire College, Holyoke Community College, Mount Holyoke College, Smith College, Springfield College, Springfield Technical Community College, UMass Amherst, Western New England University, and Westfield State University.

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — Junior Achievement of Western Massachusetts, a local non-profit organization that provides financial literacy, entrepreneurship and career readiness education, announced today it was awarded a $7,500 grant from Wells Fargo. Funding from Wells Fargo will support Pathways to 21st Century Skills Project to provide students with the tools to develop the 21st century skills needed to become highly skilled, autonomous employees.

Pathways to 21st Century Skills leverages the skills, talent, educational, and career opportunities of this region to create a cadre of role models from the community to weave multiple intersecting pathways for middle grade and high school students to engage with JA’s relevant curriculum and instructional materials, supplemental technology-driven simulations, job-shadow experiences, and competitions.

The project’s goals are to improve students’ knowledge of financial literacy in order for them to make sound financial judgments in the future; increase students’ entrepreneurial skills; increase students’ critical thinking and problem-solving skills, while increasing awareness of career and post-secondary education and career opportunities in Western Mass.

“JA of Western MA is very excited to have the opportunity to partner with Wells Fargo to bring our programs to middle grade students,” said Jennifer Connolly, president of JA of Western Massachusetts. “Wells Fargo, like Junior Achievement, is dedicated to strengthening economic opportunities in underserved communities by empowering individuals with knowledge, and tools needed to ensure financial self-sufficiency to inspire own their economic success,”

Said Ben Leonard, vice president, Wells Fargo Middle Market Banking in Springfield, “Wells Fargo has a rich history of community support in Massachusetts and we have personal connections to the people in our communities — many of whom we proudly call our customers. JA of Western Massachusetts provides critical financial literacy skills, entrepreneurship experiences and economic education to youth, helping them understand all the ways they can have successful futures.”

Daily News

AMHERST — The Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship will present its 2018 Social Innovation Conference on Saturday, April 7 at the UMass Integrative Learning Center. Registration is free and includes two keynote speakers, three panel discussions, a design workshop, breakfast, lunch, and refreshments.

Attendees will learn about trends in innovation and how social entrepreneurship is transforming traditional business. The day will begin with Bill Baue, CEO of Reporting 3.0, a business that is changing systems of reporting, along with a panel of entrepreneurs discussing the role social impact takes in their business.

Panels will then be held discussing how the finance industry is addressing impact and the role of technology in social enterprise. Michael Alden, vice president of Ascentria, will lead a Design Thinking Workshop, demonstrating the tools to effectively develop sustainable solutions to social problems. Emily Kawano, co-director of Wellspring Cooperative, will deliver the closing keynote.

To register, click here.

Community Spotlight Features

Community Spotlight

Green Thumb Industries will soon begin operating a marijuana-cultivation operation in this mill building at 28 Appleton St. And it will likely be the first of several such operations in Holyoke.

Green Thumb Industries will soon begin operating a marijuana-cultivation operation in this mill building at 28 Appleton St. And it will likely be the first of several such operations in Holyoke.

Marcos Marrero says that if one were to have a machine running an optimization algorithm that would weigh a host of quantitative and qualitative factors to ultimately determine the very best spot in the region — and maybe the country — to locate a marijuana cultivation and distribution facility, it would, when done with its analysis, likely spit out two words: Holyoke and Massachusetts.

And that second word is necessary, he went on, because there is, in fact, a Holyoke in Colorado, the first state to legalize recreational marijuana, and he’s already been asked more than a few times if he works for that small town of 5,000 people near the center of the Centennial State.

He doesn’t. He’s director of Planning and Economic Development for the other Holyoke, the one on the Connecticut River. The one heralded as one of the first planned industrial cities in the country. The one where Chicago-based Green Thumb Industries (TGI) is set to open an estimated $10 million marijuana-cultivation facility in former mill space on Appleton Street this spring.

And Marrero is fielding a lot of phone calls and e-mails these days from other people wanting to know more about that Holyoke, and marijuana cultivation is usually the reason (more on those inquiries later).

First, back to that algorithm. As noted, it would weigh a host of quantitative factors, said Marrero, and they all project strongly in Holyoke’s favor. These range from the roughly 1.5 million square feet of available, attractively priced mill space within the city, much of it ideal for marijuana cultivation because of the mills’ open spaces and high ceilings, to the lowest electricity rates in the state (this is a power-intensive business), to Holyoke’s location along I-91 and just off the Turnpike.

“You can ship it east, and you can ship it north,” said Marrero, adding quickly that there also qualitative factors to consider.

Or at least one big one, anyway. That would be the city’s welcoming attitude toward an industry that most communities in the Bay State are throwing stop signs and speed bumps in front of.

“Many cities and towns are taking out the pitchforks to prevent the cannabis industry from coming in,” said Holyoke’s mayor, Alex Morse. “Given my outspoken support for the industry, we’re seeing companies from across the country come into Holyoke to meet with us and my team about locations and learn more about our special-permit process. It’s been company after company that’s been looking to invest.”

But this cannabis phenomenon, if you will, is just part of the story. And it’s only one of the ways in which the city is succeeding with filling some its legendary and mostly idle or underused mills.

There are many others, starting with the Holyoke Community College MGM Culinary Arts Institute, which opened in the Cubit building (anther of those old mills) in January. There are also the market-rate apartments in the floors above that facility, and a host of other housing initiatives as well.

There are also arts-related facilities, such as Gateway City Arts on Race Street. And then, there are a growing number of startups, mentored by groups like SPARK, that are also moving into those mills.

All this, or most all of it (the marijuana law was passed in 2016), was part of Morse’s vision when he became mayor in 2012, and also why he’s still mayor today, having been re-elected to a four-year term (the city’s first) last fall. Back when he first ran for office, he explained, he saw enormous potential for the city to become home to a wide array of businesses and to become an attractive residential address as well after decades when it clearly wasn’t.

The formula called for a host of public investments — they’ve come in many forms, from a new canal walk to a new train depot to a slew of road projects — that would in turn encourage private investments (such as the Cubit building and GTI, for example). There would also be a focus on building the cultural economy, encouraging entrepreneurship, and maximizing Holyoke’s many geographic and historical assets.

In short, it’s all coming together nicely, as we’ll see in this, the latest installment of BusinessWest’s Community Spotlight series.

Joint Ventures

When asked to put all that aforementioned interest in Holyoke on the part of cannabis enterprises, or would-be cannabis enterprises, into perspective, Marrero let out a deep breath.

“The last couple of weeks have been … crazy,” he told BusinessWest. “There’s been lots of meetings and phone calls. Some of them are companies that are just shopping around and don’t necessarily know everything about Holyoke, but they may be looking in the Western Mass. corridor. But they’ve heard about us and want to know more.”

And it’s been crazy for a reason, actually several of them, as noted at the top.

“We believe we have the best competitive advantages for the industry at this time,” Marrero explained, “from the real estate to the low-cost electricity — those lights are on a lot — to the water. Holyoke has a lot of offer these businesses.

“And in Mayor Morse, you have the first mayor to come out and quite vocally support legalizing marijuana, recreationally and medically, and that certainly makes a difference,” he went on, adding that the city had one of the first ordinances in the state regulating, but also, and in many ways, welcoming the industry.

“So there’s some political stability — there’s a willingness and a desire to have this industry here,” Marrero continued, adding that all this caught the attention of GTI, which is now permitted to operate a facility on 42,000 square feet of former mill space at 28 Appleton St.

The company plans to hire about 100 people within the next year, said Morse, adding that, while not all of these are skilled positions, per se, these will be attractive positions with wages averaging $15 or more.

“When GTI held its first job fair last fall, there were more than 700 people in the room,” he recalled. “And that sends a strong message to other elected leaders in this city and also the community that people are looking for jobs, they’re willing to get trained, and they want to work.”

The Cubit building, home to apartments and the Holyoke Community College MGM Culinary Arts Institute, is just one example of how Holyoke’s historic mills are being put to new and productive uses.

The Cubit building, home to apartments and the Holyoke Community College MGM Culinary Arts Institute, is just one example of how Holyoke’s historic mills are being put to new and productive uses.

Meanwhile, there are many other entities looking to join GTI, said Marrero, adding that there are at least six businesses expressing what he called “serious” interest and moving toward the permitting stage, and perhaps a dozen more that are kicking the tires and filling Marrero’s voice mailbox.

How many will eventually land in Holyoke obviously remains to be seen, but Marrero and Morse both believe the cannabis sector could soon employ hundreds in the Paper City and bring additional benefits as well in the form of supporting businesses that will also pay taxes and employ area residents.

“Once you have a clustering effect of any industry, you have a subsequent clustering effect of any industry that supports that sector, and that could benefit not only Holyoke but surrounding communities,” Marrero explained. “If we had 10 cannabis-growing companies, not only would that translate into a large amount of jobs, tax revenue, and more, but then those 10 companies are going to be demanding services from pipe fitters, electricians, those who maintain HVAC systems, transportation and logistics companies, security companies, etc.; you have a second tier of expertise that is developed in the economy to support them.”

This is what has happened in Colorado (he’s not sure about the community of Holyoke) and other states where marijuana has been legalized, he went on, adding that the Holyoke in Massachusetts has the opportunity to learn from the mistakes made by others before it, and there have been some.

Run of the Mills

While the cannabis industry starts to fill in that section of the canvas that is a changing Holyoke, other businesses are finding the city as well, and the vision that Morse put in place at the start of this decade is coming into focus.

That vision involved embracing the city’s industrial past as a paper and textile hub, but also recognizing that this was in the past and that the community had to develop new sources of jobs and tax revenue while also revitalizing a downtown that had seen much better days.

The strategy for doing all that, as noted earlier, is multi-faceted.

“We’ve been pursuing an innovation-based economic-development strategy and coupling that with a public-investment strategy,” the mayor explained. “We’ve made a number of investments that have made the city a more attractive place for private investment and incentivising developers to come in; they’ve recognized that the city is making investments in itself to make it a more liveable, walkable community, especially in the downtown, and they’re responded to that.”

There’s been a housing strategy as part of that broader plan, he went on, adding that housing is obviously key to attracting businesses and the people who would work for them.

The goal is to create a dense, diverse inventory of housing, Morse went on, adding that the city is making strides in this regard with market-rate projects such as the Cubit building, mixed-use projects such such as a Wynn Development initiative at the former Farr Alpaca Mills on Appleton Street, and public housing efforts such as the ongoing, 167-unit Lyman Terrace project.

As for those public investments, they have come in many forms, including the canal walk and train station, but also a number of parks and neighborhoods. The effect has been to make the city a more attractive option for businesses, but also families, said the mayor.

“We’re not of the philosophy that one big corporate giant is going to arrive in Holyoke and solve all our problems — we have a much more long-term view of sustainable economic development,” he explained. “We’re focused on the innovation economy, but also entrepreneurship and small-business development, through initiatives such as SPARK.”

There have been more than 80 ‘graduates’ of that program of mentoring and education, run by the Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce, he went on, adding that some of them are either incubating in Holyoke or have already moved into their own space within the city.

Holyoke at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1786
Population: 40.280
Area: 22.8 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $19.17
Commercial Tax Rate: $39.72
Median Household Income: $36,608
Median Family Income: $41,194
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Holyoke Medical Center, Holyoke Community College, ISO New England Inc., PeoplesBank, Universal Plastics, Marox Corp.
* Latest information available

Meanwhile, there are other forms of progress to note across the city, said Morse, listing everything from a rising high-school graduation rate — it was under 50% when he took office, and now it’s closer to 70% — to falling unemployment; from planned revitalization of the former Lynch School just off I-91 (an RFP was recently issued) to needed evolution at the Holyoke Mall.

The mall is one of the city’s important assets, he noted, adding that it brings thousands of people into the city every day. With the retail sector struggling in the wake of emerging forces like Amazon, and malls fighting to keep their spaces filled, the facility in Holyoke is responding with family-oriented tenants that are keeping the parking lots crowded, said the mayor.

“We’ve seen the mall make a number of investments in recent years and add more entertainment options,” he explained. “These include new restaurants, an escape-room place, and a new Cinemark theater that will be coming in.”

As for the graduation rate and improvement at the public schools overall, this is an important ingredient in the overall strategy for Holyoke’s revitalization, said the mayor.

And with continued progress in mind, the city will launch a new high-school model this fall, one based on four different academies focused on career readiness to create more pathways for students.

Planting Seeds

As he talked about cannabis — and everything else going on in Holyoke — Morse joked that Holyoke might soon run out of mill space to offer developers.

When told about that line, Marrero laughed, paused for a second, and said simply, “I hope so — that would be great.”

That’s not likely to happen any time soon, if ever. But that number of available square feet in the mills that gave Holyoke its nickname and its heritage keeps going down.

And cannabis is just one of the reasons. Many of the same character traits that are attracting marijuana growers — from the mills to the highways to a business-friendly City Hall — are attracting other types of businesses as well.

As noted, Morse couldn’t exactly have foreseen the cannabis industry being one of his city’s leading employers when he took office. But he could foresee a time when his staff and the office of Planning and Economic Development would be flooded with calls from people interested in maybe setting up shop in Holyoke.

And not the one in Colorado.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Daily News

HOLYOKE — After a recent snow cancellation, Holyoke Soup, a community-based, crowd-funding, idea-generating offshoot of SPARK Holyoke, will debut at its new location at the HCC MGM Culinary Arts Institute on Thursday, Feb. 15, at 5:30 p.m.

Holyoke Soup is a dinner celebrating and supporting creative and entrepreneurial projects in Holyoke. For $5, attendees receive soup, salad, and bread while listening to presentations about business, art, urban agriculture, social justice, social programs, education, technology, and much more. Contestants have four minutes each to pitch their ideas, and audience members vote for the pitch they like best. Whoever receives the most votes collects the money from that evening.

The new location of Holyoke Soup represents an increased collaboration between the SPARK entrepreneurship program and Holyoke Community College. The HCC MGM Culinary Arts Institute, at 164 Race St., opened Jan. 22.

“We’re really excited to be able to work with HCC and utilize its new culinary facility, bringing a new level of excitement to this great community event that always brings a diverse group of people together,” said SPARK Program Manager Tessa Murphy-Romboletti.

Dinner will be prepared and served by students from the culinary-arts programs at HCC and Dean Technical High School. HCC students and faculty will be conducting tours of the new facility, and local entrepreneurs will also be showcasing their businesses and selling their products at pop-up shops featured throughout the evening.

“There is great synergy in SPARK’s endeavor and HCC’s mission, so we are delighted to be able to offer our new Culinary Arts Institute as a resource,” said Jeffrey Hayden, HCC vice president of Business and Community Services. “We can’t wait to see the new opportunities that will certainly emerge from this partnership.”

The event is open to the public for a $5 donation. Anyone interested in attending is asked to register online at bit.ly/2BQ2nwa.

SPARK Holyoke is a program of the Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce Centennial Foundation.

Daily News

CHICOPEE — The Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership at Elms College has joined forces with Baystate Health and TechSpring to offer a hands-on workshop on problem solving and innovation in the field of healthcare.

“Passionate Problem Solving Workshop” will be held on Saturday, Feb. 10 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at TechSpring, located at on the fifth floor of 1350 Main St. in Springfield.

Specific challenges arise when leaders work to solve problems, improve systems, and innovate technologies within the complex world of healthcare. This workshop will empower attendees to make meaningful changes within their environments by identifying key stakeholders, communicating effectively, and implementing processes to move ideas from concept to reality.

The following professionals will present at this workshop:

• Alyssa Dassa is an entrepreneurial professional with considerable accomplishments in a variety of industries, including medical devices, veterinary diagnostics, professional development, and real-estate investment. She is the founder and president of Sage Ventures Inc., a professional business consulting, coaching, and education company for new and existing businesses. She has professional expertise in product management, product development, strategic planning, business development, and project management.

• Amanda Garcia is the director of the Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership at Elms College, and an associate professor of accounting at Elms, teaching accounting, finance, personal finance, financial planning, economics, entrepreneurship, and tax strategy. Garcia has developed curricula for the Center of Entrepreneurial Leadership, MBA, and undergraduate accounting programs. She owns an accounting firm where she prepares taxes and consults on tax strategy for small-business clients, real-estate owners, and investors. She has additional experience in the sales of businesses, mergers, and real-estate transactions.

• Jill McCormick is the innovation director at TechSpring, Baystate Health’s Technology Innovation Center. For the past three years, she has worked with Baystate Health and industry partners to develop a process for collaboration in the development of innovative solutions. Having spent the past 15 years developing new solutions and processes for industry leaders and technology startups, she is a new-product development specialist in the health-tech sector. She is an advisory board member of the Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership at Elms College and is co-developing the curriculum for a healthcare-innovation track for both the DNP and MBA programs.

Space is limited. To register, or for more information, visit bit.ly/2D9HnSC. Contact Madelyn Dybdahl at [email protected] or (413) 241-5757 with questions.

In addition, 12 attendees will be eligible for free enrollment in two MBA courses offered by the Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership at Elms College: Healthcare Innovation and Entrepreneurship, and Lean Launchpad for Healthcare and LifeSciences.

For those who want to go further, the Elms College MBA track in healthcare innovation gives students the complex skill set needed to create innovative healing environments while transforming healthcare systems locally, nationally, and internationally. Students have the opportunity to collaborate with nurses, medical professionals, and business innovators focused on improving and creating new products, practices, and services in this rapidly changing field.

Community Spotlight Features

Community Spotlight

Geoff Kravitz (left) and Paul Bockelman

Geoff Kravitz (left) and Paul Bockelman say the town is studying what types of businesses would be best suited to its emerging mixed-use developments.

Anyone who has spent time in Amherst recognizes the town’s enviable mix of cultural institutions, restaurants, academic energy — more than 33,000 students attend UMass Amherst, Hampshire College, and Amherst College — and open space.

But town officials know they need to do more than tout those offerings; they need to leverage them to create the kind of community where college graduates will want to stay, and where families and businesses will want to locate.

A number of recent developments aim to meet that need. For example, Archipelago Investments, LLC of Amherst is building One East Pleasant, a mixed-use project featuring 135 residential units and 7,500 square feet of commercial space, with plans for the building to be completed and occupied by the fall.

Meanwhile, W.D. Cowls Inc. and Boston-based Beacon Communities are laying the groundwork for North Square at the Mill District, another mixed-use development in North Amherst, which will feature 130 residential units — including 26 affordable units for people at or below 50% of the area’s median income — and 22,000 square feet of commercial space. Construction on the project, which tapped into local tax-increment financing, is set to begin this spring.

Archipelago is also developing a third mixed-use project for the downtown area, at 26 Spring St., which will feature 38 residential units and 1,000 square feet of commercial space. That was recently permitted, as was Aspen Heights, on Route 9 at the former Amherst Motel site, where Breck Group Amherst Massachusetts LP plans a residential development that will include 115 units, 16 of them qualifying as affordable housing.

“There is a master plan which has focused development on the village centers, while taking tangible steps to preserve open space,” said Town Manager Paul Bockelman, noting that municipal leaders want new development to occur downtown, in the North Amherst Village Center, in South Amherst, and East Amherst so the town can preserve existing neighborhoods and open space.

Amherst at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1759
Population: 39,482
Area: 27.7 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $21.14
Commercial Tax Rate: $21.14
Median Household Income: $48,059
Median Family Income: $96,005
Type of Government: Select Board, Town Meeting
Largest Employers: UMass Amherst; Amherst College; Delivery Express; Hampshire College
* Latest information available

“Things are happening on campus, too,” said Geoff Kravitz, Amhert’s Economic Development director. “UMass opened its design building, they’re renovating Isenberg School of Management, and Amherst College is doing a big, new, quarter-billion science center.”

“That’s an interesting one,” Bockelman said of the latter. “At one point, they were saying 200 tradespeople were coming into town every day to work on one building. These sorts of investments from the colleges and university are making a spillover effect on the town. Clearly, as these institutions grow, it benefits the town.”

Meanwhile, the University/Town of Amherst Collaborative has been working since 2015 to create better connections between UMass and the town, from addressing student housing needs to leveraging opportunities related to university research, entrepreneurship opportunities, cultural opportunities, and retention of graduates.

It’s a town, in short, that is ripe for opportunities that spring out of such connections — and a place whose cultural profile makes it a true destination for visitors and transplants alike.

Speaking of Culture

The Amherst Central Cultural District is another connection-maker of sorts, a state designation issued in 2016 that aims to leverage the offerings of the Emily Dickinson Museum, Jones Library, the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, the Yiddish Book Museum at Hampshire College, the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College, and other cultural institutions.

“They can cross-promote; for example, the Emily Dickinson Museum has a poetry week, and Amherst College has a literary festival,” Kravitz said, adding that the Business Improvement District also presents an arts festival downtown that brings together artists of all kinds who normally work independently. “We have a lot of people who do their artwork at home, and this gets them out of the woodwork and shows a strong artistic presence downtown.”

Meanwhile, the Amherst WinterFest, an array of cultural and recreational offerings slated for Feb. 3-10, has been expanded this year from a weekend to a full week, due to popular demand.

The downtown district continues to attract new businesses — the Red Door Salon, Bart’s Ice Cream, and Ichiban are a few recent notables — but with a low vacancy rate, growth is limited until those mixed-use developments come online. And the town has streamlined its downtown parking options as well, making it easier for people to pay by phone, for instance, and issued maps showing where visitors can find parking, bathrooms, and other amenities.

Through it all, officials hope the new mixed-use developments downtown create more business growth, energy, and tourism.

“We’re looking to fill that commercial space, and that requires breaking out the crystal ball and looking into the future,” Kravitz said. Specifically, the down has engaged with the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission to develop an economic-development plan which will examine the market, local economic indicators, and the town’s so-called SWOT — strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats — to determine what types of businesses may be most successful, including but possibly going beyond the restaurants, retail, and entertainment options that have long thrived downtown.

As for housing, the new residential developments are welcome, as there hasn’t been much residential development over the previous couple decades, Bockelman said, noting that a 2015 study determined that Amherst could use some 4,000 more units. “People have been trying to fill that gap.”

But young people aren’t the only ones interested in the Amherst lifestyle. “Older people are retiring to college towns; it’s very attractive, between the cultural benefits and the 80 miles of hiking trails here and the access to nature,” he added, referring to the K.C. Trail, the Robert Frost Trail, and the Norwottuck Rail Trail. “Not everyone is going to Florida to retire. Some people grew up here and want to stay here; they’re not fleeing to warmer climes.”

The Kayon Accelerator, which opened last year on the second floor of the AmherstWorks co-working space downtown, can play a role in retaining people who grew upin Amherst and went to college here, Kravitz said, by attracting people trying to turn innovative ideas into businesses and may be looking for venture capital and other resources.

“If they like the lifestyle here, why not stay where they have friends and have a life already?” he said. “That’s one thing we’re trying to build — that 22-to-44 age group, people starting their families here. That’s really valuable to us.”

Green Thoughts

There is one other economic-development opportunity that towns have grappled with in myriad ways, but that Amherst is embracing. That’s the marijuana trade — both medicinal and recreational. Considering that the town’s voters favored the 2016 ballot measure legalizing recreational pot by a 3-to-1 margin, officials here are taking seriously how best to respect their wishes while emphasizing safe use of marijuana.

“This recreational use, or adult use, is something our residents want to see, and even if the town doesn’t think it’s a good idea, it’s going to have an impact on the town anyway, so it’s a good idea to have the businesses located here so we can take advantage of the tax revenue, and do it in a safe, responsible manner,” Kravitz said.

However, with a population that’s constantly changing — thousands of freshmen report to UMass Amherst, Hampshire College, and Amherst College each fall — the town is planning a significant educational component as well. It has also passed a number of marijuana-related regulations, including a 3% local-option sales tax, a ban on public consumption, and capping at eight the number of recreational-marijuana establishments in town.

“We thought that would create enough competition without overwhelming them,” Kravitz said. “The town is now looking at zoning that will help refine that.”

It’s just one more way a town with much to offer residents and businesses is working to weave those amenities into a tapestry that keeps people coming — whether for school, to live, or simply to enjoy the scene.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Daily News

HOLYOKE — Holyoke Soup, a community-based, crowd-funding, idea-generating offshoot of SPARK Holyoke, will debut at its new location at the HCC MGM Culinary Arts Institute on Wednesday, Feb. 7, at 5:30 p.m.

Holyoke Soup is a dinner celebrating and supporting creative and entrepreneurial projects in Holyoke. For $5, attendees receive soup, salad, and bread while listening to presentations about business, art, urban agriculture, social justice, social programs, education, technology, and more. Contestants have four minutes each to pitch their ideas, and audience members vote for the pitch they like best. Whoever receives the most votes collects the money from that evening.

The new location of Holyoke Soup represents an increased collaboration between the SPARK entrepreneurship program and Holyoke Community College. The HCC MGM Culinary Arts Institute opened Jan. 22 at 164 Race St.

“We’re really excited to be able to work with HCC and utilize its new culinary facility, bringing a new level of excitement to this great community event that always brings a diverse group of people together,” said SPARK program manager Tessa Murphy-Romboletti.

Dinner will be prepared and served by students from the Culinary Arts programs at HCC and Dean Technical High School. HCC students and faculty will conduct tours of the new facility, and local entrepreneurs will showcase their businesses and sell their products at pop-up shops featured throughout the evening.

“There is great synergy in SPARK’s endeavor and HCC’s mission, so we are delighted to be able to offer our new Culinary Arts Institute as a resource,” said Jeffrey Hayden, HCC vice president of Business and Community Services. “We can’t wait to see the new opportunities that will certainly emerge from this partnership.”

The event is open to the public for the $5 donation. Anyone interested in attending is asked to register online at bit.ly/2BQ2nwa.

SPARK Holyoke is a program of the Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce Centennial Foundation.

Opinion

Editorial

Over the past 22 years, BusinessWest has had a number of intriguing recipients of its Top Entrepreneur award.

Many would fall in the category of ‘traditional’ when it comes to entrepreneurs, including last year’s honoree, Paul Kozub, creator and president of V-One Vodka, and the 2015 recipients, the second and third generations of the D’Amour family, owners of Big Y supermarkets.

But some honorees would definitely be considered non-traditional, or outside the box (there’s an entrepreneurial term). These would include former Springfield Technical Community College President Andrew Scibelli, who, among other things, created the Technology Park across from the main campus at the start of this century. That term ‘non-traditional’ would also describe former Cooley Dickinson Hospital President Craig Melin, who not only led that institution back from the financial brink, but spearheaded the creation of a number of cutting-edge programs.

At first blush, it might seem fair to label this year’s honoree — the owners and managers of the Springfield Thunderbirds — to be a non-traditional selection, or at least a combination of both. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine the Red Sox being named Top Entrepreneurs, or the Alabama Crimson Tide, for that matter.

But this team’s owners and managers exemplify all the basic tenets of entrepreneurship — from risk taking to meeting a recognized need within the market; from introducing a new product to thinking outside the box (there’s that phrase again).

Wait, introducing a new product? Hockey isn’t a new product. Yes, and that’s a point we’ll come back to in a minute.

First, the risk-taking part. It was a calculated risk, but a risk nonetheless. After all, when the owners of the Springfield Falcons decided to move the team to Arizona, there were many in this region saying that Greater Springfield was not a hockey town and could not support a professional sports team.

They put their faith in Springfield native Nate Costa, a veteran administrator with the American Hockey League who had previously gained significant experience in group sales and other aspects of team management and promotion with the league’s franchise in San Antonio.”

But a group of owners, led by Paul Picknelly, owner of Monarch Place, decided that Springfield not only needed a hockey team at this critical time in its history — with MGM already building its casino and several other forms of progress in evidence — but that it would support one as well.

They put their faith in Springfield native Nate Costa, a veteran administrator with the American Hockey League who had previously gained significant experience in group sales and other aspects of team management and promotion with the league’s franchise in San Antonio.

He came to Springfield with a game plan, and it called for bringing a lot more than hockey to the residents of this region.

Indeed, he and his front-office team have delivered experiences, rather than three periods of hockey. These experiences have included live music, special promotions (a Star Wars-themed night, wrestling greats in attendance, and bring your dog to the game, for example), and tributes to some of the sport’s greats (like Willie Oree) and the legacy of hockey in Springfield.

This is thinking outside the box, and it culminated with bringing Red Sox legend David Ortiz to the MassMutual Center in November for a night they’ll be talking about for years.

As for those owners, they didn’t just buy the team and hand the keys to Costa. They’ve invested time, energy, and imagination to the task of bringing people to the MassMutual Center — and bringing them back repeatedly — and building the brand they’ve created.

Call it teamwork, another one of those fundamentals of entrepreneurship.

All of them are on display with the Thunderbirds, a team that has captured the region’s attention and held onto it by doing what all good entrepreneurs do — finding ways to continuously improve and deliver what the customer wants and needs.

An outside-the-box choice for Top Entrepreneur? Maybe, but not really. This is just a good business success story. v

Cover Story Sections Top Entrepreneur

T-Birds’ Owners and Managers Continue to Push the Envelope

Front row, from left,

Front row, from left, Dante Fontana, Nathan Costa, Frank Colaccino, and Brian Fitzgerald; second row, from left, Paul Picknelly, Dinesh Patel, Chris Bignell, Chris Thompson, Sean Murphy, Francis Cataldo; third row, from left, Derek Salema, Peter Martins, Jerry Gagliarducci, John Joe Williams, Vidhyadhar Mitta, and James Garvey.

An Exercise in Teamwork

Back in the spring of 2016, a consortium of owners came together, bought the Portland Pirates AHL franchise, and relocated it to Springfield. It was said that this group brought hockey back to the City of Homes 10 days after it left. In reality, though, it has brought much more, including excitement, energy, innovation, and vibrancy — along with hockey. For doing all that, the team of owners and managers has been named BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneurs for 2017.

If you go on eBay this morning, you can buy a bobblehead featuring Red Sox slugger David Ortiz wearing sunglasses and a Springfield Thunderbirds jersey. List price: $59.99.

But while you can buy it now, you can’t get it for at least a month or so.

That’s because no one actually has one to send to you. These items won’t be distributed until the Feb. 17 Thunderbirds game against the Providence Bruins.

The fact that this bobblehead is already for sale online demonstrates many things — from the incredible popularity of Big Papi to the awesome power of capitalism at work (60 balloons for a bobblehead?).

But it demonstrates something else as well: Just how far hockey has come in Springfield in 20 short months. Indeed, in the late spring of 2016, there was no hockey in Springfield. Well, there was no American Hockey League franchise, anyway.

Red Sox legend David Ortiz

Red Sox legend David Ortiz belts a foam baseball into the crowd during the game on Nov. 11. His appearance in Springfield represents just one example of the outside-the-box thinking that defines the new ownership and management team.

The Falcons, who had been playing at the MassMutual Center for more than 20 years, had pulled up stakes and were heading to Arizona. Into this void stepped what would become, by AHL standards (or any standards, for that matter), a huge ownership group of 28 that brought professional hockey back to Springfield.

Only, all 28 of them would be put off by that last phrase to some extent.

Indeed, they would prefer to say that hockey is just one of the things they’ve brought to the City of Homes. They’ve also brought imagination and entrepreneurship; Star Wars Night and $3 Coors Light draughts on Friday night; free parking in the Civic Center Garage (actually, it’s back by very popular demand) and … David Ortiz bobbleheads.

Evidence of all this was in abundance on Jan. 6, a frigid Saturday night when the wind chill was well below zero, representing a microcosm of what the team has accomplished and what it has become.

This was Blast from the Past Night, with the team donning Springfield Indians jerseys from the early ’90s for a tilt against the Providence Bruins. The night became a mix of nostalgia, high energy, and record sales at the merchandise shop.

“It was 6 below zero, and we had more than 6,000 people in this arena,” said Paul Picknelly, president of Monarch Enterprises and managing partner among the owners. “We sold out the place with families that are coming to downtown Springfield, feeling comfortable bringing their families downtown for professional sports.

“It’s not just about hockey,” he went on. “The previous owners’ mindset was ‘we have hockey in Springfield.’ What we’re saying is that we have something different that we’re offering the community.”

For bringing this family entertainment, this ‘something different,’ as well as much-needed vibrancy and even validity to downtown Springfield, the Thunderbirds team — not the one on the ice (although it is also a big part of the story), but rather the ownership and management team — has been selected by the leaders at BusinessWest as the recipients of the magazine’s Top Entrepreneur Award for 2017.

Several of the team’s owners and managers

Several of the team’s owners and managers gather on the ice in a host of jerseys worn by the team over the past season and a half. The ownership group is large (28 individuals and groups) but very engaged.

This group was chosen among a host of other intriguing candidates for many reasons, but especially the manner in which it has changed the landscape since that headline announcing that the Falcons were flying southwest — and we don’t mean the airline.

There is considerably more energy downtown on 36 game days and nights (there are actually a few morning contests as well, as we’ll see) between October and April, and maybe beyond.

But that’s just part of the story. Indeed, the T-Birds are a year-long phenomenon and a region-wide resource as well, thanks to an omni-present mascot and a management team laser-focused on keeping the team top of mind, even in the middle of summer.

The phrase ‘weaving our way into the fabric of the community’ was uttered by more than a few of the owners we spoke with recently, and this is exactly what the team has done.

For their ability to do that, and especially for their efforts to bring not only hockey but much more back to Springfield, the ownership and management team is truly worthy of BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur honor.

Owning the Solution

They sound like characters on one of those Saturday morning cartoon shows.

But ‘Boomer’ and ‘Squeaky’ are real — well, sort of. They are the mascots, respectively, for the Thunderbirds and Balise Motors’ growing stable of car washes in Western Mass.

They appear together sometimes, and increasingly, and these joint appearances are just one example of the many ways in which the 28 owners of the Thunderbirds — Jeb Balise, a principal with the family-owned Balise corporation, is one of them — are involved and invested in the team and its success in Springfield and across the region.

Other examples abound, from construction company owner Dave Fontaine putting banners for the team at his construction sites, to Dunkin’ Donuts franchise owners Peter Martins and Derek Salema running promotions at their stores (more on one of those later); from employees at Red Rose Pizza wearing T-Birds jerseys on game nights (principal Anthony Caputo is one of the owners) to Picknelly, a local partner with MGM Springfield, convincing that corporation to not only be a sponsor of the T-Birds, but to actively help market it after the casino opens this fall.

It happened very quickly, and the reason it did, and the reason everyone got involved from the ownership standpoint, is because everyone loves Springfield. We have diverse backgrounds, but we all love Springfield, and it’s an easy ask when you ask someone to invest in it.”

Indeed, just before a slot machine pays out to a winner, a screen will pop up asking the lucky player if he or she would like to buy a ticket to a Thunderbirds game, said Picknelly, adding that this is one of many ways the casino will help promote the team.

Collectively, these initiatives, and this involvement, speak to how unified these owners are in their desire to secure a long, prosperous future for this franchise. They have different businesses and different backgrounds — and many of them didn’t know much about hockey when they were approached about this venture — but they understood the importance of the team to the city, especially at that critical time in its history.

Indeed, using different words and phrases, the owners we spoke with said that the spring of 2016, when they all came together in this enterprise, was not the time (if there really ever is a good time) for Springfield to be without a hockey team.

Elaborating, they said that, with MGM coming in the fall of 2018, Union Station set to open soon, greater vibrancy downtown, and a general sense of optimism, the city needed to maintain momentum, not lose any.

So when Picknelly called and asked them to be part of a growing consortium of owners, they found it easy to say ‘yes.’

“I remember getting the call from Paul on a Friday afternoon; he said, ‘did you see the paper today?’” said Fran Cataldo, a principal with C&W Realty, referring to the day the Falcons’ owners announced they were selling the team to the NHL’s Phoenix Coyotes. “I said, ‘yeah, I did.’ And he said, ‘it’s not going to happen; we’re going to keep hockey here.’

“And in the course of 72 hours, we identified a team, negotiated a purchase-and-sale agreement, and made a deposit on the team,” he went on. “It happened very quickly, and the reason it did, and the reason everyone got involved from the ownership standpoint, is because everyone loves Springfield. We have diverse backgrounds, but we all love Springfield, and it’s an easy ask when you ask someone to invest in it.”

Thunderbirds players wore replica Indians jerseys

Thunderbirds players wore replica Indians jerseys on Blast from the Past Night on Jan. 6, an event that became a microcosm of the team’s efforts to create energy and an experience at the MassMutual Center.

Cataldo, a long-time friend of Picknelly’s, said he’s worked with him on a number of initiatives that fall into the broad categories of economic development and improving the public perception of Springfield. And the purchase of the Thunderbirds fell into both categories, so be called it a “natural,” especially in the context of the question everyone was asking 21 months ago: ‘what if we lost hockey?’

“It’s more than losing hockey,” he said, answering the question himself. “You’re losing 4,000 or 5,000 people 30-plus nights a year downtown. They’re bringing their families downtown, they’re parking, they’re eating, they’re going out afterward; it’s a huge, huge economic engine for Springfield.

Frank Colaccino, CEO of the Colvest Group, who admits that he didn’t know a red line from a blue line when Picknelly called him, tells a similar story.

“He called me and said, ‘we’ve got to move quick; we need the support of people who work in Springfield and care about Springfield,’” he recalled. “I think it took me all of about five minutes to say, ‘Paul, do you think we’ll get our money back?’ He said, ‘yeah, I think we will,’ and I was in.”

Collectively, the ownership team being assembled needed to raise $5.5 million for the down payment on the team, and as it went about doing so, it focused on keeping the group local and committed to the region.

It even turned down more than $1 million from a New York investor that wanted in, but also wanted some controls in exchange for its investment.

“We all sat around this table and said, ‘we don’t want that,’” said Colaccino. “The person’s not from the area, doesn’t care about the area, and we decided we didn’t want to give up some of those controls. And it took some guts to walk away from that and say, ‘we’re going to raise this money.’”

In the span of about 10 days, Springfield lost hockey and got it back, but the act of buying the Portland (Maine) Pirates and bringing them to Springfield would be only the first expression of entrepreneurship with this franchise.

Net Results

The second, whether the ownership team realized it at the time or not (and they probably did), was hiring Springfield native Nate Costa to lead this venture.

Costa had most recently been working in the American Hockey League office in its Business Services Department, but he also had extensive experience in the field, if you will, working for the league’s San Antonio Rampage.

He arrived in Springfield with what he called a “blueprint” — one that called for not just hockey, but affordable family entertainment — but also with his hands full.

Indeed, the team didn’t have a name at that point, or colors, a uniform design, or even a lease with the MassMutual Center. All that got done, and Costa set about putting to work the lessons he learned in San Antonio, but also from watching some of the league’s most successful franchises.

From the outset, he said the focus has been on providing an experience, not just three periods of hockey, and also on making the team visible and active within the community. Doing those things requires a real commitment from ownership and the requisite resources to get the job done properly, something the previous ownership didn’t provide.

Chris Thompson, the Thunderbirds’ senior vice president of Sales & Strategy, who has worked with the team for nearly a decade and for three different ownership groups, described the difference between then and now.

“It’s a breath of fresh air having the support of the local investment group to give us the resources to be able to go out there and tell the story,” he explained. “We did some cool things with the Falcons back in the day, but we could never tell the story; the biggest difference between then and now is that the local group is fully engaged.”

It is also more entrepreneurial, a word that could be used to describe both ownership and management, said Costa, adding that this has become the team’s mindset largely out of necessity.

Elaborating, he said that, from his vantage point in the AHL offices, he saw what he called missed opportunities in Springfield, especially with regard to ticket sales at all levels, especially group sales and season tickets.

His goal upon taking over the team was to seize those opportunities.

“I put together a plan that I almost had in the back of my mind,” he recalled. “It was really focused on grassroots efforts — beefing up our season-ticket sales, doing more with marketing and on social media, and really taking an entirely fresh look at the franchise.

“I had absolute confidence, if we stuck to our plan when it came to ticket sales and having a sales mindset, that this could work here,” he went on. “And I think we’re starting to see that. It’s taken some time, but year one was a huge success on a number of levels.”

This was made clear by the team’s haul when it comes to year-end awards handed out by the league. The credenza in the conference room is crowded with such plaques, which recognize achievement in areas ranging from group ticket sales to “recovered revenue.”

Costa said those plaques result from a systematic look at all aspects of the operation with an eye toward making changes when they were needed, and that was often the case.

As it was with ticket prices, for example, said Costa, noting that, with the previous administration, all seats were priced the same. The new ownership has introduced price flexibility, dividing the seating bowl into several areas, with different prices for each one.

Another focal point was concessions. Using the team’s relationship with MGM, management was able to negotiate a Friday-night special on concession and beer sales in an effort to get more younger people and families in the arena.

Still another matter was parking, which was a recognized deterrent for many potential fans. So the club negotiated a deal whereby the team would make a payment to the city, enabling patrons to park in the Civic Center Garage for free, a step that brought immediate and lasting results.

“We really tried to take all the things we had heard from the previous couple of years and take them head on and find ways that we could make a tangible impact,” said Costa. “We did this not only for the casual fan, but the season ticket holders; they’re going to reap the biggest benefit from this because they’re coming every night.”

Goal Oriented

As for that aforementioned promotion at Dunkin’ Donuts, one that involved giving away two game tickets with purchases at the drive-up window on a specific day, the mere mention of it brought some wry smiles and looks toward the ceiling among those talking with BusinessWest.

This wasn’t a promotion gone wrong, per se, but one that didn’t go exactly as planned. And this created one of those good problems to have — sort of, but not really.

To make a long story a little shorter, far more people redeemed the tickets for this early-season game than management anticipated, leaving far fewer seats available for walk-up customers, a scenario the team has worked very hard to avoid.

Previous Top Entrepreneurs

• 2016: Paul Kozub, founder and president of V-One Vodka
• 2015: The D’Amour Family, founders of Big Y
• 2014: Delcie Bean, president of Paragus Strategic IT
• 2013: Tim Van Epps, president and CEO of Sandri LLC
• 2012: Rick Crews and Jim Brennan, franchisees of Doctors Express
• 2011: Heriberto Flores, director of the New England Farm Workers’ Council and Partners for Community
• 2010: Bob Bolduc, founder and CEO of Pride
• 2009: Holyoke Gas & Electric
• 2008: Arlene Kelly and Kim Sanborn, founders of Human Resource Solutions and Convergent Solutions Inc.
• 2007: John Maybury, president of Maybury Material Handling
• 2006: Rocco, Jim, and Jayson Falcone, principals of Rocky’s Hardware Stores and Falcone Retail Properties
• 2005: James (Jeb) Balise, president of Balise Motor Sales
• 2004: Craig Melin, then-president and CEO of Cooley Dickinson Hospital
• 2003: Tony Dolphin, president of Springboard Technologies
• 2002: Timm Tobin, then-president of Tobin Systems Inc.
• 2001: Dan Kelley, then-president of Equal Access Partners
• 2000: Jim Ross, Doug Brown, and Richard DiGeronimo, then-principals of Concourse Communications
• 1999: Andrew Scibelli, then-president of Springfield Technical Community College
• 1998: Eric Suher, president of E.S. Sports
• 1997: Peter Rosskothen and Larry Perreault, then-co-owners of the Log Cabin Banquet and Meeting House
• 1996: David Epstein, president and co-founder of JavaNet and the JavaNet Café

“It was the Friday after David Ortiz, so we were topical and people wanted to check us out,” Cataldo recalled. “The redemption, which is typically low for those tickets, was through the roof, and we essentially sold out of our tickets.”

Said Costa, “at the end of the day, we were turning people away at the box office, which you don’t want to do all the time.”

If the Dunkin’ Donuts promotion was something that went wrong — and that’s not the term most would prefer to use in reference to that night — then not much else has for this team.

Indeed, just about everything has gone exceedingly right.

Including the so-called ‘Shoot to Win’ promotion involving one of the team’s newest sponsors, Mercedes-Benz of Springfield.

In case you missed it — and that was almost impossible to do — young Nathan Vila managed to shoot a puck into a hole not much wider than the puck itself from about 150 feet away to win a new Mercedes GLA SUV. But that’s only part of the story.

“It was just before Christmas, and the young man [Nathan] was heading into the service in a few weeks and gave the car to his mother to drive,” said Peter Wirth, a principal with the dealership. “You really couldn’t script it any better.”

There hasn’t been a script, per se, for anything the Thunderbirds and their management team have done since they started scrambling to get the team ready for the start of the 2016-17 season in that hectic summer other than do what entrepreneurs do famously — think outside the box, innovate, invest in the company, and take some calculated risks.

And these are exactly the personality traits that inspired Wirth and his wife, Michelle, to want to be part of what was happening with the Thunderbirds.

“We went to a few games, and they seemed to be doing things the right way … it might as well have been the NHL; they were delivering a really good product,” he said. “They think outside the box, and they create energy and excitement, and we wanted to be part of that.”

And nothing personifies those qualities more than the night David Ortiz came to Springfield.

In case you missed it — and that, too, was almost impossible to do — the Red Sox slugger appeared before and during the Nov. 11 game against the Laval (Quebec) Rocket. He drove an ATV on the ice, signed a ton of autographs, and whacked some foam baseballs into the sellout crowd.

It was a huge success, but it was also a considerable risk given the huge sticker price attached to an appearance from Big Papi. But it was a risk the ownership team was more than willing to accept it.

“That was a huge commitment — those big stars certainly don’t come cheap,” said Colaccino. “But when that idea was presented, everyone around this table said, ‘what a great idea.’ The number being tossed around to get him here was a big one, but not one person said, ‘no, that’s not a good idea.’ Having a baseball guy come to a hockey arena … that’s outside-the-box thinking, and it was hugely successful.”

Costa quantified the matter by saying the team reaped a three-to-one return on that sizable investment thanks to a mix of corporate sponsorships, additional ticket revenue, a VIP event, merchandise, and special Red Sox-themed team jerseys made possible through the team’s relationship with MGM. Elaborating, he called the Ortiz night not only a microcosm of that blueprint mentioned earlier, but an example of his mindset when it comes to the team and its ownership.

“From day one, I’ve looked at this as a business venture because they’ve put their trust in me to make this work from a business perspective, and I’ve never lost sight of that,” he explained. “So when I presented the Ortiz piece, it wasn’t ‘give me what I need to get him,’ it was ‘here’s what it’s going to do for us, here’s what the return is going to be, here’s what it’s going to do for the community and the Thunderbirds name in general.’

“And coming from the American Hockey League and seeing what other AHL franchises need to do in a market like Springfield … it’s very entrepreneurial,” he went on. “It’s grassroots; it’s rolling up sleeves and doing the dirty work.”

Knowing the Score

Meanwhile, Costa said the Ortiz night was a very needed step to raise the bar in the team’s critical second year.

Indeed, calling on his extensive experience in the league, he said it’s not uncommon for a team to do well in its first year as it brings something new and different to a region. It’s also common for teams to struggle in their efforts to maintain that momentum.

“I knew it was going to be a challenge in year two to continue that momentum moving forward, and I knew we needed something special,” he said, referring to the Ortiz promotion but also a full year’s worth of events.

The Thunderbirds sold $10,000 worth of gin and juice

The Thunderbirds sold $10,000 worth of gin and juice at the Jan. 6 game, thanks to Snoop Dogg, his Indians jersey, and effective use of social media.

While Ortiz’s appearance in Springfield has probably been the high-water mark for this franchise, there have been plenty of other examples of outside-the-box thinking, risk taking, and, overall, an entrepreneurial mindset.

All those were on display on Blast from the Past Night, which highlighted the team’s success not only in creating an experience on the ice and in the arena, but in fully capitalizing on the awesome forces of social media.

In this case, the team put Snoop Dogg to work — or, more specifically, the Springfield Indians jersey he famously wore in the video for his song “Gin and Juice” — in its promotions for Blast from the Past Night. It was a natural tie-in to the evening’s festivities and inspiration for a $5 gin and juice special sold at the MassMutual Center that night.

“We sold $10,000 worth of gin and juice,” said Picknelly, noting that he and his son split one that night.

And then, there was Hockey Week in Springfield, staged in the middle of this month in an effort to bring people out during a difficult time of year and a few difficult days of the week.

The week started with a 1:05 p.m. tilt against the Hartford Wolf Pack on Martin Luther King Day. Youngsters were admitted to end zone seats for $5.55 courtesy of Friendly’s. The week continued with a Wednesday contest (those dates are always challenging) against one of the league’s most iconic franchises, the Hershey Bears. If the T-Birds won (and they did), then patrons’ ticket stubs would be good for the Feb. 7 game (yes, another Wednesday).

The week wrapped up with a Friday-night tilt against the Binghampton (New York) Devils, or a ‘3-2-1 Friday,’ as they’re called because a Coors Light, as noted, is $3, a hot dog is $2, and sodas are $1.

The unofficial goal moving forward, said Costa, with several owners nodding their head in agreement, is to make what happened on the night of that Dunkin’ Donuts promotion the norm.

Well, not exactly what happened that night, but the part about a game being sold out and patrons not to expect to be able to walk up to the ticket window a few moments before a game starts and buy some tickets.

“People are used to just walking up on game night and buying a ticket and getting a great seat,” Costa explained. “It’s not necessarily the case anymore, and from the beginning, that’s what we set out to do.

“What we’re trying to manufacture is urgency,” he went on. “That was the biggest thing we didn’t have coming into this. There was no urgency to buy tickets, no urgency to buy season tickets, no urgency to buy tickets early; we’ve tried to lay the foundation to change that — to create a sense of urgency.”

From all accounts, the team’s owners and managers are well on their way to doing just that.

Bottom Line

As he talked about the ownership group that he reports to, Costa acknowledged that 28 is a big number and one that most people would see as ungainly and something of a disadvantage.

He says this group is anything but that.

That’s because it’s not only large, but also visible on game nights and, most importantly, fully invested in the team, in every sense of that word.

“It’s been a huge benefit, and we couldn’t do what we do without it,” he said of the large group of owners. “We lean on them for support within the local community.”

Support comes in many forms — from getting much-needed introductions to exercising connections such as those needed to secure those Red Sox-themed jerseys for David Ortiz night, to bringing people to the MassMutual Center, as that Dunkin’ Donuts promotion did.

All that support has resulted in a changed landscape — where sometimes one can’t get a ticket on game night, and, yes, where David Ortiz bobbleheads are for sale on eBay two months before they’re actually handed out.

It’s a story of determination. A story of teamwork. But mostly, it’s a story of old-fashioned entrepreneurship.


George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Meetings & Conventions Sections

Inspiration Point

Vitek Kruta stands in the Hub at GCA, which hosts concerts almost weekly.

Vitek Kruta stands in the Hub at GCA, which hosts concerts almost weekly.

Gateway City Arts touts itself as “a venue for events, entertainment, dining, art making, teaching, and learning.” That’s quite a mouthful, but the sprawling complex in Holyoke’s growing innovation district, beside its historic canals, has certainly become all that and more. It’s a model, co-owner Vitek Kruta says, that not only raises the profile of local artists and startups, but boosts tourism and raises the city’s economic profile.

Today, the complex known as Gateway City Arts houses artist studios, operates a restaurant, presents concerts on a regular basis, and hosts events of all kinds. But Vitek Kruta says its origins were much more humble than that.

“The whole thing started because I was looking for my studio,” said Kruta, an artist himself, who, along with business partner Lori Divine, bought the facility on Race Street in Holyoke five years ago. “We stumbled upon this space, and we loved the building. Then it took several months to negotiate to get it. Once we did, we asked, ‘now what do we do with all this space?’”

All they knew for sure was that they saw something unique in the empty warehouse along the city’s canals. Now, the facility functions as a co-working space for artists and others during the day and an event space on nights and weekends, one with a decidedly funky vibe.

Kruta and Divine were no strangers to the area arts scene. He had been involved in New City Art in Northampton, and she with the Guild Studio School in Northampton, among other roles. “We were both always interested in building community around art, providing space for artists’ classes and concerts and the interaction of all these disciplines. Now we had this huge building, so what can we do with it?”

Besides housing his own studio — he restores fine art — in the complex as planned, Kruta and Divine slowly began the process of cleaning up the building and making it available for studios and classes — and, eventually, performances, meetings, and events.

“Little by little, we had to find out how can we utilize this place and follow our dream, because we always dreamed about creating a community-based place for artists and musicians,” he explained. His daughter, a tango dancer, brought her group of dancers in house, and they volunteered to help with renovating the rooms and sanding the floors.

The restoration of a large room called the Judd Paper Hall attracted other dance and yoga groups, even while the complex’s future bistro area, where BusinessWest recently sat with Kruta, was still a dark, boarded-up storage area, with two loading docks where big trucks carried away loads of debris throughout the day. Meanwhile, the current concert venue, known as the Hub at GCA, was just a temporary stage, but was selling out shows early on.

“Now it’s growing to the point where we’re starting to attract bigger players in the game,” he noted. The next phase was renovating the upper floors — he eventually moved his studio and office up there — and making the first floor accessible for public use. “Little by little, we started to develop the second-floor cubicles, which is now the maker space.”

Those artists and makers include puppeteers, painters, costume designers, writers, jewelry makers, three nonprofits, a property-management startup, and, soon, a microbrewery. Four tenants are graduates of SPARK, Holyoke’s entrepreneurship-education and mentorship program. Gateway also houses a fully equipped woodworking shop and ceramics studio in the basement, which can be rented to whomever needs them.

The facility’s bistro

The facility’s bistro serves lunch and dinner throughout the week and a popular brunch on Sundays.

“This whole facility is about resources,” he said. “We have an instrument builder who makes guitars downstairs. There was a guy who built 500 beehives. There are small projects — if somebody just needs to come drill some holes, and they need some special piece of equipment, it’s there.”

There’s plenty of ‘there’ at Gateway, and more to come, as Kruta and Divine continue to hone their vision of the facility as a resource not only for its tenants, but for the community as a whole.

Food for Thought

A major step toward fulfilling that vision has been the creation of a fully functional commercial kitchen, which enables Gateway to prepare much more food than before, when Kruta had access only to a tiny kitchen space.

That means the events people book in one of the three large meeting areas — which include weddings, fund-raisers, concerts, bar mitzvahs, birthday parties, memorial services, and corporate trainings — now have food service to match. Meanwhile, a restaurant on the site called Gateway City Bistro serves lunch and dinner most days, and a popular brunch on Sundays.

“We realized that, when we have concerts, we need to provide some kind of food,” Kruta said, but the kitchen benefits Gateway in other ways, too. While artist tenants thrive through shared resources and networking, food-related startups can use the kitchen to develop their own enterprises — such as Holyoke Hummus Co., which started at Gateway but now has its own location on High Street.

Race Street warehouse

Vitek Kruta and Lori Divine saw plenty of potential in this Race Street warehouse that has now become a mecca for the arts, performances, and events.

The possibilities are endless, he continued, whether a startup is baking cookies, packaging spices, selling dumplings from a food truck, or launching a microbrewery. But the key word is ‘startup.’

“That’s the whole idea — this is a startup place for everybody. Once you become established or test your product or you can actually take it to the next level, you move out and find some other place.”

It’s often a small step from having a great idea to developing the prototype, he added, arguing that there’s no place quite like Gateway that provides that opportunity to such a wide range of entities.

Meanwhile, the concert venue, which obviously benefits from the expanded food service, now boasts a fully equipped stage with state-of-the-art lighting. A few steps away, an outdoor patio beer garden and grill area provides an opportunity to host events outdoors. And all of it takes place in a complex with a specific vibe that appeals to party bookers looking for something a little different. “Really, anything that you need space for, you can find here,” Kruta said.

Gateway’s many spaces have been used for fund-raisers as well, and some of the artistic endeavors are intended to reflect relavant civic concerns, such as an upcoming exhibit — timed for Black History Month — of 35 paintings by Robert Templeton, known for his presential portraits as well as his civil-rights-themed pieces, including a massive portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. that will be on display for the month. The art show will be complemented by concerts, panels, and discussions centered on social justice.

“This is a tool to move the community forward and address certain issues,” Kruta said. “It is very exciting. When you start to get a little understanding of the complexity of this place … it’s hard to explain, but anything is possible.”

Art and Parcel

Since they purchased the building that would become Gateway City Arts, Kruta and Divine have expanded their team to 20 employees. One of them, Cait Simpson, first arrived as an artist using the space, and now serves as the facility’s director of marketing.

“The environment they set up is so community-based and so devoted to the arts,” she said, “and as an artist coming to work here, you feel that, and you’re inspired to do more here.”

The connections that form among the artists are also valuable, Kruta noted, as they often help each other understand the entrepreneurial aspects of their trades and learn how to make a living selling their work. In return, the artists often take part in events that raise Gateway’s profile while also giving them valuable exposure. “We are fostering and developing these relationships that will only multiply the creative possibilities. That’s the idea of this place.”

In short, Kruta loves the energy he feels when he walks around the building.

“We love Holyoke, and that’s why we’re here,” he said. “You look around, and it’s incredible. We’re bringing 30,000 people here a year. We have concerts almost every week. People come here for a one-of-a-kind experience, and I think that’s what we’ve accomplished.”

Admittedly, plenty of area facilities offer, as Gateway does, a catering program, multiple halls people can rent for weddings and corporate meetings, and state-of-the-art sound equipment. “But we have a specific vibe here,” Kruta told BusinessWest. “We are artists, and we can afford to be quirky, and we want to be. We want people to come here and be like, ‘oh, look at those bricks.’

“That’s the reaction now,” he concluded. “There’s always this factor of ‘wow, I’ve never seen anything like this,’ and they walk away feeling inspired.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Opinion

Editorial

The future.

It might just be the most difficult thing about being in business — although dealing with the present can also be daunting, as anyone who has ever attached their name to a venture knows.

Looking to the horizon and projecting what possibly lies beyond it is difficult, if not impossible. And the history of business and entrepreneurship is replete with examples of people not accurately reading the tea leaves.

Indeed, who can forget Digital Equipment Corp. co-founder Ken Olsen famously, or infamously, saying in 1977, “there is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home.” Digital, as we all know, didn’t survive to see the end of the century.

And today, as the pace of technological advancement accelerates at previously unheard-of speeds, and with huge implications for business and society in general, anticipating the future and preparing for it is becoming that much more difficult.

It was with all this in mind that BusinessWest initiated a new series of breakfast lectures under the working title Future Tense, a name that certainly sets the tone (see story, page 10).

The first lecture, to be led by Paragus Strategic IT founder Delcie Bean, will be titled “An Unprecedented Technological Disruption,” and it will address a confluence of powerful forces and the ripple effects it will produce.

This program is certainly timely, and it coincides with a lively stream of commentary about technology and where it is taking the business world in the years to come.

Much of the speculation is about jobs and professions and what will happen to them as forces such as artificial intelligence, autonomous driving, and virtual reality rumble over the business scene like the glaciers rumbled over what is now North America millions of years ago. Only, glaciers moved very slowly; these forces will move at speeds we’ll have a hard time comprehending.

And this focus on jobs is understandable, especially as parents look not only at their own careers and how long they will be viable, but also at what their children should be thinking about as they mull possible career paths.

There is already widespread talk about how time-honored professionals such as doctors, lawyers, and, yes, even journalists, could soon be replaced by machines capable of doing their work. In fact, robots are already making their presence known in the operating room at many hospitals.

But beyond the obvious concerns about jobs and careers, there is the equally daunting issue of how businesses can anticipate change, operate in an environment of continuous and profound change, and even capitalize on some of this seismic activity.

Or, put another way, how do businesses avoid becoming the next supermarket parking-lot photo kiosks, Blockbuster Video franchises, and Digital Equipment Corporations?

Obviously, they must become flexible, cognizant of change, and fully aware that competition can come from virtually anywhere, and in the future, it probably will.

Beyond that, well, nothing is obvious.

That’s why the first lecture in the series, set for Feb. 22 at Tech Foundry, should be so intriguing — and also a little scary. The remaining quarterly lectures will be equally insightful, and equally important, for business owners looking toward tomorrow and what it might bring.

That’s why we called this Future Tense. As they say in the broadcast world, stay tuned.

Agenda Departments

Elms College MBA Classes

Starting Jan. 8: Elms College has opened registration for the spring 2018 start dates in its master of business administration (MBA) program. Classes will begin Jan. 8, and a second session of classes will begin on March 26. Elms College offers six MBA specialty tracks: accounting, management, entrepreneurship, financial planning, healthcare leadership, and the new healthcare innovation track. In each track, MBA students work with and learn from experts in these fields, and with experts in other industries, for a well-rounded learning experience. Elms’ MBA program offers a flexible, hybrid model of delivery, allowing students to participate in live classes both in the classroom and online. For students who did not major in business, Elms offers a Foundations program and an Excel for Business program. Another feature is the Pathways to Leadership program, an extension of the MBA curriculum that leads participants on a journey of self-discovery. The MBA program offers a strong understanding of business principles, plus the ability to apply those principles and create change. It was designed to give students the skills to navigate a global economy and contribute to their local communities.

Women’s Fund Mentor Match

Jan. 13: January is National Mentoring Month, and the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts (WFWM) announced its second annual Mentor Match, a networking event that aims to engage emerging leaders with seasoned professionals. The event will take place from 1 to 3 p.m. at the UMass Center at Springfield, and is open to the public. Featuring Bay Path University Professor Janine Fondon, WFWM board and committee members, participants and alumni of the Women’s Fund’s Leadership Institute for Political and Public Impact (LIPPI), and community members, as well as members and supporters of the Young Women’s Initiative (YMI), the Mentor Match is designed to connect members of the Women’s Fund family as mentors and mentees to share resources, experiences, and work together in order to achieve professional and personal goals. All members of the Women’s Fund community are invited to attend. RSVP by Jan. 10 by visiting www.mywomensfund.org/event/mentor-match.

EMT Training, CNA Plus Programs at STCC

Starting Jan. 22: Springfield Technical Community College will again offer its popular Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) Training Program, as well as the Certified Nurse Aide (CNA) Plus Program, both starting in January. The EMT program consists of about 171 hours of lectures, 15 to 20 hours of online instruction, an auto-extrication class, and an eight-hour clinical hospital emergency-room observation designed to prepare the student for the Massachusetts State Certification Examination. The program, based on the Department of Transportation curriculum for Basic Emergency Medical Technician, is approved by the Massachusetts Office of Emergency Medical Services. Daytime and evening classes start Jan. 22. Visit www.stcc.edu/wdc or call (413) 755-4225 to enroll. The CAN Plus Program at STCC is designed to provide participants with job skills that will allow entry into the healthcare field as well as preparation for the Massachusetts state board examination to become a certified nurse aide. Day classes, which start Jan. 22, will be held Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Students will receive clinical experience in a local nursing home under the supervision of registered nurse (RN) instructors. Major topics will include vital signs; moving and turning patients; personal-care basics; bed making; bed, bath, and feeding; record keeping; and responding to emergencies. This course will also include a Home Health Aide Training Certificate and an Enhanced Alzheimer’s Module. Students will attend a job fair scheduled at the conclusion of this program. Evening Classes for BASIC CNA start Jan. 28, and will be held Monday through Friday, 4-9:30 p.m. The Workforce Development Center at STCC offers a wide variety of entry-level health programs. Visit www.stcc.edu/wdc or call (413) 755-4225 to enroll.

EMT Training at HCC

Jan. 30 to April 28: Holyoke Community College is now enrolling students for its spring-term Emergency Medical Technician training program. The HCC EMT Training Program consists of 170-plus hours of in-class lectures and additional online study, training, field trips, and workshops that prepare students to take the state certification exam. The majority of the training takes place on Tuesdays and Thursdays fom 6 to 10 p.m. at HCC’s new, state-of-the-art Center for Health Education, home to the college’s Nursing and Radiologic Technology programs. Last year, HCC received a $127,741 state Workforce Skills Capital Grant to purchase new equipment to enhance its EMT training program. The course uses equipment identical to that found in modern ambulances. The program makes extensive use of the medical simulation labs in HCC’s Center for Health Education. Some of the grant money was used to purchase a patient simulator specifically designed for EMT and paramedic training that hemorrages and can be hooked up to a defibrillator. The course is taught by instructor Mike Marafuga, an EMT with the Southwick Fire Department. For more information or to register, contact Ken White at (413) 552-2324 or [email protected]

40 Under Forty Nomination Deadline

Feb. 16: BusinessWest magazine will accept nominations for the 40 Under Forty Class of 2017 through the end of the work day (5 p.m.) on Friday, Feb 16. The annual program, now in its 12th year, recognizes rising stars within the Western Mass. community, which includes Berkshire, Franklin, Hampden, and Hampshire counties. This year’s group of 40 will be profiled in the magazine’s April 30 edition, then toasted at the June 21 gala at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House in Holyoke (see below). The nomination form, which can be found online at businesswest.com/40-under-forty-nomination-form, requests basic information and can be supported with other material, such as a résumé, testimonials, and even press clippings highlighting an individual’s achievements in their profession or service to their community.

Difference Makers

March 22: The 10th annual Difference Makers award program, staged by BusinessWest, will be held at the Log Cabin in Holyoke. The winners will be announced and profiled in the Jan. 22 issue. Difference Makers is a program, launched in 2009, that recognizes groups and individuals that are, as the name suggests, making a difference in this region. Tickets to the event cost $75 per person, with tables of 10 available. To order, call (413) 781-8600, ext. 100 or visit www.businesswest.com. Sponsors to date include Sunshine Village and Royal, P.C. Sponsorship opportunities are still available by calling (413) 781-8600, ext. 100.

40 Under Forty Gala

June 21: The 12th annual 40 Under Forty Gala is a celebration of 40 young business and civic leaders in Western Mass. The lavish cocktail party, to be held starting at 5:30 p.m. at the Log Cabin in Holyoke, will feature butlered hors d’oeuvres, food stations, and entertainment — and, of course, the presentation of the class of 2017. Also, the third Continued Excellence Award honoree will be announced. Tickets will go on sale soon at $75 per person (tables of 10 available), and the event tends to sell out quickly. For more information, call (413) 781-8600, ext. 100, or e-mail [email protected]

Daily News

CHICOPEE — The Master of Business Administration (MBA) program at Elms College will hold a Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) workshop on Saturday, Jan. 6 from 8:30 a.m. to noon in the Mary Dooley College Center.

MBTI is one of the most widely used assessments in the world and provides a framework for understanding personality differences, which in business affect how people communicate, learn, and work. Participants will gain a better understanding of how they make decisions, handle conflict, and interact with others.

The cost is $140 for the general public and $99 for Elms College alumni, which includes all workshop materials and breakfast. To register, call (413) 265-2592 or e-mail [email protected]. The deadline for registration is Dec. 29.

The MBA program at Elms College offers six specialty tracks: accounting, management, entrepreneurship, financial planning, healthcare leadership, and the new healthcare innovation track. The MBA program offers a flexible, hybrid model of delivery, allowing students to participate in live classes both in the classroom and online. The program is accredited by the International Assembly for Collegiate Business Education.

Daily News

CHICOPEE — Elms College has opened registration for the spring 2018 start dates in its master of business administration (MBA) program. Classes will begin Jan. 8, and a second session of classes will begin on March 26.

Elms College offers six MBA specialty tracks: accounting, management, entrepreneurship, financial planning, healthcare leadership, and the new healthcare innovation track. In each track, MBA students work with and learn from experts in these fields, and with experts in other industries, for a well-rounded learning experience.

“Our professional faculty members impart real-world experience they apply every day on the job to our students,” said Kim Kenney-Rockwal, director of the MBA program at Elms. “By staying on top of current and future trends, the program instructs students on how to leverage human resources from within their organization, creating opportunities to compete, move ahead, and be effective in the workplace.”

Elms’ MBA program offers a flexible, hybrid model of delivery, allowing students to participate in live classes both in the classroom and online. For students who did not major in business, Elms offers a Foundations program and an Excel for Business program.

Another feature that sets the Elms College MBA program apart is its Pathways to Leadership program, an extension of the MBA curriculum that leads participants on a journey of self-discovery. “The Pathways to Leadership component is a mix of workshops and events that MBA students and MBA graduates can take advantage of, for free, to grow as dynamic leaders in their career fields,” Kenney-Rockwal said.

The MBA program at Elms College is accredited by the International Assembly for Collegiate Business Education. It offers a strong understanding of business principles, plus the ability to apply those principles and create change on many levels. The Elms MBA program was designed to give students the skills to navigate a global economy and contribute to their local communities.

“The Elms College MBA program will challenge you to analyze and balance bottom-line business decisions with a strong emphasis on the ethical, social, and political aspects of the ever-changing business landscape, providing you with the platform for personal and professional growth,” Kenney-Rockwal said.

Daily News

SOUTH HADLEY — Mount Holyoke College is now offering a series of linked classes for professionals seeking new or expanded skills to further their careers.

The new offerings are through Mount Holyoke’s graduate programs for emerging leaders, managers, communications professionals, and educators. They include the Nonprofit Leadership and Social Entrepreneurship Institute, the Digital Innovation and Media Institute, the Global and Intercultural Leadership Institute, and the Differentiated Instruction Institute. The classes can be taken alone or in a series, for credit or simply to build expertise. More information can be found here.

“These institutes offer professionals pathways to further their careers and to position themselves for brighter futures and careers in burgeoning fields,” said Tiffany Espinosa, executive director of Graduate Programs at Mount Holyoke.

Those attending will learn essential career skills, including project management, leadership, finance, and effective collaboration. The courses are designed to meet the needs of professionals, delivering graduate-level education in on-campus, accelerated courses that can be completed in a week, or online courses that can be taken anywhere in the world. An added bonus, taking classes with like-minded professionals offers students a built-in network to grow with their careers.

The deadline to register for January classes is Tuesday, Dec. 19. To register, click here.

Opinion

Editorial

Go back a year, and we were talking about 2017 as a year in which a considerable amount of hard work — and good fortune — were going to bring dividends to the region and change the landscape in a number of ways in the year ahead.

And that’s exactly what happened. Union Station in Springfield opened its doors again after more than 40 years of essentially being part of the city’s past. CRRC’s massive rail-car assembly plant in East Springfield came to life before our eyes. In downtown Springfield, MGM’s casino began to soar well above street level, while behind the scenes, the company took important strides in the daunting task of assembling a workforce of 3,000. And across the region, entrepreneurial energy was building in the form of dozens of new and exciting startups.

As the year ends, we find ourselves saying essentially the same thing. If 2016 was a year to lay brick, then 2017 was more of the same, with more exciting projects due to come to fruition in 2018.

There is a word for that: momentum. And there is quite a bit of it in this region as we prepare to turn the calendars yet again.

Indeed, in 2018, MGM Springfield will open its doors and also open up what is expected to be a new world of opportunities for this region and individual businesses. Since plans for the $950 million facility were announced, there has been no end of speculation about what it will mean for the city and the region. Starting in about nine months, we’re going to find out.

Meanwhile, CRRC will be hitting its stride; the I-91 viaduct reconstruction project will be over, and traffic will start flowing smoothly again through that north-south corridor; the region’s burgeoning entrepreneurial ecosystem will continue to generate new startups and help young companies get to the proverbial next stage; and more projects are likely to get off the drawing board, especially Springfield’s Court Square initiative.

If 2016 was a time of anticipation for what might come next, 2017 provided more of the same. Again, we call that momentum.

But while looking ahead, we should also look back. Not everything went according to script in 2017. Indeed, the Innovation Center project in downtown Springfield ground to a halt in late spring, and there are no signs that work will start anytime soon. Meanwhile, the ‘for-sale’ sign went up on Tower Square (not long after the ‘Marriott’ sign came down on the adjoining hotel). There is hope that this sale might spark new life for that complex, but also considerable doubt about just what might work there. And it was another dark year for the region’s traditional retail sector, which is in full-blown retreat due to the emergence of online shopping.

But there were more than enough good stories to counter those drawbacks. Here’s a partial list:

• Callaway’s golf-ball facility in Chicopee is hiring dozens of new workers to manufacture a unique new concept called Truvis;

• Also in Chicopee, Mercedes-Benz has made its triumphant return to the region with the opening of a dealership on the site of the old Plantation Inn just off Turnpike exit 6;

• The Springfield Thunderbirds continue to be a remarkable story, one that blends resilience with imagination, and bold new concepts, like bringing David Ortiz to the City of Homes;

• Likewise, the Valley Blue Sox continue to develop new ways to bring people to Holyoke and show other businesses how to build a market for a product;

• The Basketball Hall of Fame will commence an ambitious renovation and expansion project that seems destined to take that facility to new heights (see story, page 25);

• The region’s colleges and universities continued to respond to growing and changing needs within the business community and add new programs in fields ranging from cybersecurity to healthcare to entrepreneurship;

• New businesses continue to be launched and propelled to the next stage, a trend perhaps best exemplified by FogKicker, a venture born in the polymer science labs at UMass Amherst; and

BusinessWest and the Healthcare News introduced a new recognition program called Healthcare Heroes that put a bright spotlight on one of this region’s most important sector and the men and women who work within it. In a word, the eight individual stories were truly inspiring.

That’s just a sampling. Overall, 2017 was, as they say, a very good year. And it looks like we have another one on tap.

Economic Outlook Sections

On the Bright Side

By Richard Sullivan

Richard Sullivan

Richard Sullivan

The state of the region’s economy is strong, and the economic outlook is bright. That’s a simple statement, but let’s look at the facts that support that optimism.

We all have read of the important investments that MGM and CRRC, the Chinese rail-car manufacturer, are making in Springfield. Less-reported is the some $5.2 billion of economic-development projects that have recently occurred or are currently underway in our region.

In a 2016 study, the Economic Development Council of Western Mass. (EDC) catalogued the growth in each community — from housing developments to manufacturing companies expanding and relocating to the area; from transportation investments to growth in our public and private education systems. That study shows strong and important regional investments, and this trend is continuing.

MGM and CRRC are certainly important regional economic-development projects for the jobs they are creating, the taxes they will pay, and the many public benefits they are required to provide through their host-community agreements. However, the biggest economic impact the projects will have is when they contract with local businesses as part of their operational and supply chains. MGM specifically is using best efforts to annually contract locally for $50 million in goods and services. These dollars will stay local, provide additional economic opportunities, and create more jobs in companies that are part of the fabric of our communities, hiring our neighbors, paying local taxes, and supporting our local charities. It is an opportunity we are capitalizing on, but one that we can’t lose sight of.

Another bright spot within the local economy is tourism. You may think Boston, San Francisco, or New York, but maybe not Western Mass., when it comes to this important sector. However, tourism is the third-largest industry in the region. Approximately 3 million visitors come to the area each year, spending $750 million, producing an estimated $17 million in state and local taxes, and supporting 5000 jobs.

Mary Kay Wydra, president of the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau, is bullish on the growth of tourism in Western Mass., with the addition of MGM, the Dr. Seuss Museum, a soon-to-be-refurbished Basketball Hall of Fame, continued investment at Yankee Candle and Six Flags, and more. She is confident that annual visitorship will grow. Tourism is a vital part of our economy and will become even more important beginning in 2018.

Still another source of optimism and good news is the growing amount of entrepreneurial energy in the region.

Indeed, at the recent “State of Entrepreneurship in the Valley,” hosted by Steve Davis and the EDC entrepreneurship committee, the focus was on the growth of a relatively new sector for the region — innovation, startups, and entrepreneurship. In 2015 and 2016 alone, more than 9,000 people attended a Valley Venture Mentors (VVM) event; there are currently 613 part-time and 227 full-time jobs in the startup ecosystem, and just under $27 million of revenue and investment was created in the region. If all the startups were under one roof, they would represent the 11th-largest company in Springfield.

The entrepreneurship ecosystem is growing up and down the Valley. VVM works closely with initiatives in Franklin County and SPARK in Holyoke; our local colleges and universities have all carved out leadership positions; Greentown Labs, based in Somerville, Mass., has opened a manufacturing office at the Scibelli Enterprise Center; and the Grinspoon Entrepreneurship Initiative is a national leader in elevating the importance of entrepreneurship and recognizing entrepreneurial excellence among college students. A new group, Women Innovators & Trailblazers (WIT), is establishing itself in order to ignite a women-led innovation economy in Western Mass. and beyond. This is an exciting and quickly growing sector in the region.

I see additional new sectors growing in the region that can become centers of excellence for Western Mass. This year, UMass Amherst, in cooperation with the EDC, hosted an event highlighting its national leadership position in the field of green technology and the environment. The event was sponsored by the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center and focused on building technologies, water innovation, and clean energy and storage. Companies from across Massachusetts came to discuss the quickly growing green-technology cluster and the partnerships that can be developed between the private sector and the university for research and development, but also talent development.

Bay Path University recently staged its fifth annual Cybersecurity Summit, showcasing the work it is doing in the field of cybersecurity. President Carol Leary, who serves as a member of the Department of Homeland Security’s Academic Advisory Council, said “it is critical for higher education to be a central part of this emerging cyber ecosystem. We are developing the right talent, the diverse talent needed to be a part of the cybersecurity workforce. To the students pursuing a cybersecurity career — you are the future, you are qualified, and we need you more than ever.”

Western Mass., because it is home to a significant number of universities, colleges, community colleges, and technical schools, finds itself in an enviable position because it can supply the workforce of the future.  Still, there is no doubt that the biggest issue facing our existing companies, and the companies of the future, is their ability to find, develop, and retain a high-quality workforce.

We need to coordinate with all the great workforce-development organizations in the region and leverage the high-quality education institutions that call Western Mass. home to meet this demand.

When we do, our future economy will be bright.

Richard Sullivan is president of the Economic Development Council of Western Mass.; [email protected]

Education Sections

Connecting to a Better Future

online-medi-517935648useIt’s no secret that hospitals and other healthcare settings are pushing for nurses with higher education levels, but it can be difficult for a working RN, often with plenty of family responsibilities, to go back to school. The RN to BSN Completer Program at the American Women’s College of Bay Path University solves that issue with a fully online format and plenty of support to help students succeed — and open doors that had previously been closed.

The 22 registered nurses who graduated in May from the American Women’s College of Bay Path University with their bachelor’s degrees — the first class to complete the new, innovative program — weren’t just improving their own career options, although they certainly did that.

On a broader level, they were responding to a call from the National Institute of Medicine for 80% of nurses to eventually achieve a baccalaureate level of education, one that encompasses the big-picture issues faced in settings ranging from hospitals to skilled-nursing facilities to public-health organizations.

“The national challenge for 80% of nurses to be BSN-prepared by 2020 indicated to us a great need for a flexible, affordable solution for registered nurses whose lives are already so full, between caring for others at work and, on top of that, having families, hobbies, and other personal responsibilities,” said Amanda Gould, chief administrative officer for the American Women’s College (TAWC).

Bay Path’s solution, she said, is an accelerated, 100% online program that lets students — many of whom are already juggling an RN position with family responsibilities — an opportunity to broaden their education on their terms, around their rigorous schedules.

The RN to BSN Completer Program, as it’s officially known, allows for licensed, registered nurses with an associate or diploma degree to return to college to complete a bachelor’s degree in nursing. Bay Path’s program is fully online, allowing students to enroll and participate from across the country, and the accelerated format means that, for most students, the degree can be achieved in 18 months.

Post-graduation surveys of the inaugural graduating class revealed that two quickly found promotions, one as a hospital ER manager and another as a manager of care coordination, said Maura Devlin, deputy chief learning officer at TAWC. A new survey underway is expected to reveal more such career moves, as well as a number of graduates preparing to continue on toward master’s degrees at other schools.

Amanda Gould

Amanda Gould says the online RN to BSN program is a tangible response to the national call for 80% of nurses to eventually have bachelor’s degrees.

Programs like this one will continue to bring the Bay State’s number of BSN-level nurses closer to 80% — the state had already set a goal of 65%, with the number currently around 50% — but it will also open doors that may be starting to close for RNs. Although there are no official numbers, Gould and Devlin said, RNs see hospitals and other organizations pushing for higher levels of education, and favoring BSN-level nurses in hiring and promotions.

Bay Path’s new nursing program, now educating its second class of enrollees, is doing what it can to meet that demand, and early returns have been positive.

Expanding Access

Backing up a little, the American Women’s College was founded in 2013 with a mission to expand access to higher education to the 76 million American women who do not have a college degree. Its 28 programs run the gamut from accounting to criminal justice; from child psychology to early childhood education; from entrepreneurship to food science and safety.

Many students enrolled in various RN-to-BSN programs in this region haven’t necessarily had to leave a job to do so, but they have been challenged to fit classes in between work and family life. The online option at TAWC allows students to engage in classroom activity — much of which takes place on forums and discussion boards — on their own schedule.

The RN-to-BSN track technically requires 120 credits, but 30 are awarded up front for the students’ RN training and experience, and other credits (up to 84, in fact) can be transferred in as well, depending on the student’s prior education, training, and experience.

Devlin said the courses are patient-focused and reflect the ‘nine essentials’ of baccalaureate nursing education established by the American Assoc. of Colleges of Nursing. These include a liberal education base; evidence-based practice; quality care and patient safety; information management; policy, finance, and the regulatory environment; communication and collaboration; population health management; professionalism and values; and general nursing practice.

“These are our program outcomes,” Gould said, adding that administrators have explicitly defined some fields students may see as options for professional growth upon attaining their degree, such as case manager, infection control, home care, hospice care, occupational nurse, managerial positions, public health, risk management, and specialty care.

There’s a self-reflective element to the program as well, Devlin said, and students are encouraged to consider their unique attributes and leadership skills. “The program has the BSN candidates thinking about themselves as leaders in the field of nursing, and positions them to go on to those types of roles.”

Classes are run in a cohort model, meaning the students navigate through the courses together, although they don’t have to be online at the same time. The classes are conducted in six-week sessions — six of them per year — and taught by master’s level nursing educators.

“When we surveyed the first cohort of 22 students in May, every one of them said they would recommend the program,” Gould said. “That was really validating.”

The American Women’s College was developed to improve performance, retention, and graduation rates for nontraditional learners, and does so partly through the development of Social Online Universal Learning (SOUL), a data-driven approach to online education at TAWC, Gould said. Among its features, SOUL features customized instruction, dedicated educator coaches to help students who start to struggle, and virtual learning communities to engage other students who share their goals and professional interests.

And there are definitely some common challenges. Seventy percent of TAWC students are first-generation college attendees, one-third are single mothers, and more than half are Pell-eligible, which speaks to economic need. “We really do feel it’s kind of mission-driven, in that we’re creating a new entry point to college for this population,” she said.

She cited one student, a 38-year-old who had dropped out of high school when she became pregnant, who now works as an administrative assistant. “Her daughter is now college age, and she wanted to be a role model for her daughter,” Gould explained, so she enrolled in the American Women’s College and is now one of its top students.

Maura Devlin

Maura Devlin says the first cohort of graduates is already seeing broadened career opportunities and even promotions.

“She’s kind of representative of a lot of students we serve who are trying to make a better life for themselves and their families,” she told BusinessWest. “Their motto has become ‘it’s my time.’ For a long time, they’ve put their families first, and they’ve finally come to a place where they give themselves permission to get their education.”

First Steps

The American Women’s College received some good news in October when the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) voted to grant full accreditation through 2022 to the RN to BSN Completer Program.

“The collective commitment to quality education demonstrated each day by our faculty, staff, and community partners to provide our students with the knowledge and skills they need to be outstanding nurses is at the heart of our work, and our program status reflects that,” said Marjorie Bessette, director of the Nursing program.

Meanwhile, TAWC maintains partnerships with Baystate Health and Mercy Medical Center to work together to increase the number of nurse practitioners with BSN degrees.

“As a nurse, I want to give the best possible care that I can to patients. It’s my job to save lives. Completing my BSN has ensured that I can do just that,” said Laura Mazur, a nurse at Baystate Medical Center who graduated from Bay Path’s program in May. “I used to think of myself as an in-class learner, but as a floor nurse working the midnight shift, I simply didn’t have the time to spend in a classroom. The online program through the American Women’s College fit well into my life.”


Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Daily News

CHICOPEE — Recognizing the importance of inspiring young people to pursue their professional dreams, Elms College announced it will work with Junior Achievement of Western Massachusetts (JAWM) to award a scholarship of $2,500 to the winner of the fourth annual JA EnTEENpreneur Challenge in March 2018.

Junior Achievement of Western Massachusetts started the JA EnTEENpreneur Challenge in 2015, and Elms College has been deeply involved in supporting JA’s youth entrepreneurship outreach efforts. The college hosts a yearly Pitch Camp for all middle-grade and high-school students involved in the JA It’s My Business program or the JA Company Program, giving participating students insight into how to develop a business pitch and helping them to craft pitches for their own businesses.

This year, for the fourth Annual JA EnTEENpreneur Challenge, Elms College will give the winning student, on behalf of the college’s Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership, a $2,500, one-time, non-transferable scholarship for their freshman year. If the winning company comprises more than one student, the students will split up to $5,000 in scholarships. If the team includes non-high-school seniors, those students can defer the award until their freshman year at Elms.

“Elms College has a mission to give back to the community,” said Amanda Garcia, director of the Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership (CEL) at Elms College. “We know that economic development and entrepreneurship is a big part of making our community better. We strongly believe in supporting the entrepreneurial spirit at a younger age, and the JA EnTEENpreneur Challenge offers a perfect venue to inspire and support future business leaders.”

When they arrive at Elms, the scholarship winners will be able to take advantage of the CEL’s academic offerings, which include a major in entrepreneurship and an interdisciplinary undergraduate minor in entrepreneurship. The CEL offers a strong foundation in core business concepts using Lean LaunchPad, a startup methodology for gaining immediate customer feedback in the marketplace during the launch of a business. The Lean LaunchPad model allows startups owners to learn as they grow their businesses and react to market demands.

“Elms College is an outstanding educational partner with Junior Achievement,” said JAWN President Jennifer Connolly. “Elms students, faculty, and staff volunteer to present more than 40 JA programs each year, and from the beginning Elms has supported JA’s entrepreneurial programs. Being able to tell our JA Company Program students that not only could they win a cash prize of $500 but a scholarship to further their education and follow their passion for entrepreneurship is a dream come true for JA of Western Massachusetts. For nearly 100 years, JAWM has been inspiring and preparing young people to succeed in life and the world of business, and now we can see those young people continue their journey beyond high school, thanks to Elms College.”

The fourth annual JA EnTEENpreneur Challenge will be held on Thursday, March 22, 2018, at the UMass Center at Springfield. Members of the public who would like more information or to become involved can contact Connolly at (413) 747-7670 or [email protected].

Entrepreneurship Sections

Planting Seeds

Steve Rosenkrantz

Steve Rosenkrantz

Western Mass. has seen an impressive surge in entrepreneurship over the past decade, but when people think about the successes, they tend to call to mind startups and independent companies. But there is another way to succeed in business ownership, and that’s through franchising. Through a national company called Entrepreneur’s Source, Steve Rosenkrantz has been matching clients with franchises for 17 years — by focusing on what they want not just in a career, but out of life.

Steve Rosenkrantz has a simple way of explaining his job.

“I think of what I do as planting seeds,” he said — and in 17 years as the owner of an Entrepreneur’s Source franchise, he’s planted many of them.

He also fancies himself a matchmaker of sorts, but not the kind who brings two people together. No, he’s making matches between his clients and what will, hopefully, become their ideal lifestyle, in the form of their own franchise business.

“I learned a few things a long time ago, and one is that nobody really wants to buy a business; they just like the benefits of owning one,” he said with a laugh. “I guess I create a safe space for the client to be educated and discover for themselves what types of franchise options match their career goals and expectations.”

In short, he’s helping individuals — usually people with well-established careers who are looking for a change and a measure of autonomy — transition to the realm of entrepreneurship. Rather than launching a startup, however, his clients are investing in a franchise of an established business.

The evidence of how it works began with his own search for a business opportunity in 2001, when his family business — a chain of Serv-U hardware and home-improvement stores — went through a dramatic downsizing. He then commenced a search for what to do next, and turned to the Entrepreneur’s Source for some guidance.

After a lengthy coaching and assessment process, one of the franchise opportunities put in front of him, oddly enough, was the Entrepreneur’s Source itself. Almost two decades later, he remains passionate about his work and the impact it has both regionally and nationally.

I learned a few things a long time ago, and one is that nobody really wants to buy a business; they just like the benefits of owning one.”

Take Antonia Santiago, for instance. She had an idea for a business startup in the senior-care space. When she talked to a local representative at SCORE, the business-mentoring agency, they referred her to Rosenkrantz. Through a series of discussions about what she was looking for in a career and lifestyle, another possibility arose.

“I said, ‘what do you think about working with children?’” he said. “She said, ‘I love children.’ I said, ‘I have a hunch.’”

So he connected her with a company, well-established in New York and New Jersey, called HobbyQuest, an after-school enrichment program that dovetails with local school curriculum to enhance what children are already learning and building on it.

“The match was perfect, and last month, she launched in West Springfield,” Rosenkrantz told BusinessWest. “It shows how, when people have awareness of what I do, like the SCORE counselor did, wonderful things can happen that benefit the community.”

Like his own experience, the process begins with an open mind to think past specific ideas the client may have in mind, and get to the root of their ILWE goals — income, lifestyle, wealth, and equity — to find an opportunity that fulfills them all in the short and long terms.

“I’m always respectful of opportunities people may have in mind when they come to me, but I like to back up the train a bit to get to understand what they really want their ILWE to be,” he explained. “The right franchise should be able to match all those things. My job is to match my clients with the right franchise models that correspond best to their geography, investment level, family dynamics, and the scalability they’re looking for.”

The options are endless, he added. “It could be with employees or without; with a physical storefront or a virtual storefront. I profile clients and, through lots of Q and A, help them determine what path to go on. It’s not a perfect system; there’s no such thing as that. But the program encourages clients to approach the process with an open mind, to determine whether we’re on the right track, or we need to redirect.”

Put Me In, Coach

There is a third term Rosenkrantz uses to describe his role, and that is a coach — in both business and life, with the recognition that the latter has a huge impact on the former.

The discovery process he undertakes with clients covers everything from personal and financial background to the type of business they believe they would be suited for.

He then offers a series of franchise ideas from his database, based on that all-important ILWE, which the client researches to see what might spark an interest.

Some matches have become well-known success stories in Western Mass., such as Jim Brennan and Rick Crews, who wound up starting a Doctor’s Express franchise in West Springfield and now operate more than 20 of them throughout the region. For their success, they were named BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneurs for 2012, and have significantly expanded their footprint since.

Their field of urgent care is, in fact, a good example of finding a niche with serious growth potential, and Brennan and Crews jumped in at the right time. On the flip side, Rosenkrantz said, anyone looking to open a Dunkin’ Donuts these days is about a decade past peak saturation.

On the other hand, “when the frozen-yogurt craze started not long ago, a lot of major players wanted to connect with us, but we chose to stick with a company called Menchie’s, which had a vision that was a little different. They were focusing on frozen desserts, not just froze yogurt, and they had a vision what they want to look like in five to 10 years.”

New England tends to be conservative about new businesses, he added. “We tend to bring in franchises that are already tested and have a strong track record elsewhere in the world. And that’s good for me.”

Indeed, Massachusetts is fertile ground for some nationally successful franchises that have not exploded here yet, such as Sport Clips, three of which were recently launched by Ian Coogan, a commander at Westover Air Reserve Base who was looking for a business opportunity he could transition into while still spending most of his time at the base. “He doesn’t cut hair, and he doesn’t have to go in on a daily basis,” Rosenkrantz said — again, demonstrating that there’s a franchise to match everyone’s schedule.

Speaking of entrepreneurs with a military background, Rosenkrantz pointed out Patrick Walker, a retired senior chief of the U.S. Coast Guard, who had been responsible for the maintenance and quality assurance of its Aviation Department.

He attended a military-recruiting expo in 2014 with an open mind and a taste for entrepreneurship, but also a recollection of other franchise representatives he had talked with before who were heavy on hard-selling their opportunities, but not as interested in what his own goals and needs were.

But the Entrepreneur’s Source coach he met was different, Walker explained in an interview — one of many with military clients — collected in a booklet to tout Entrepreneur Source’s Veteran2Entrepreneur program. Because he was interested in travel and wanted to relocate to his hometown of Frisco, Texas, he opened an Expedia CruiseShipCenter there in 2016, taking advantage of a career option that let him choose where to live after a lifetime of moving around from post to post.

“Most of my friends are getting comfortable jobs; I decided I wanted something I could call my own,” he said. “I have a sense of pride wearing my uniform and driving to my business. It’s the American dream.”

Rosenkrantz said veterans, as a group, especially understand the potential of franchising. “Why? Because they can follow a system, and they know how to add value to a system. They like organization, they like regimen, and a franchise system is their bread and butter. Franchising and the military is a wonderful combination.”

Walker agreed. “As a retiring veteran, I felt I was too old to start a business from scratch. But in a franchise, all I needed was to read and implement the operations and procedures manual.”

Living Proof

Rosenkrantz works with clients across the U.S. and finds them matches from coast to coast, but he said he’s especially gratified performing that task in Western Mass. and Northern Conn. because of the bonus of boosting the region’s economy and bringing intriguing new businesses to the area.

“I never lose sight of the fact that I am a franchise that helps people find the right franchise. I live franchising every day. I’m a testimonial to our process because I was a client myself.”

The Entrepreneur’s Source is paid by franchises for successful matches, and Rosenkrantz said they consider it money well spent.

“The introduction we make between clients and franchises is a much warmer connection because my clients have already been vetted, and I check the territory availability of the franchise model for the client. So, the franchise gets someone with potential synergies right out of the gate, and that is something that’s valuable to them, so they love compensating my company for those warm introductions. We are advocates to make sure everything is in alignment.”

Because of the wide range of opportunities, clients may have to invest as little as $20,000 for a franchise opportunity or as much as millions, and many, like Coogan, keep their current jobs while ramping up their new business. Rosenkrantz also helps clients navigate funding resources like a unique 401(k) rollover program that doesn’t pile on the penalties, as well as Small Business Administration loans and similar programs.

In addition, “I have helped many people who say, ‘I don’t have the liquidity,’ but you do have family and friends. Sometimes people allow pride to get in the way, but they have people who care about them, and good things can happen if you utilize your circle of influence.”

There is a second facet to Rosenkrantz’s role, however — to help small-business owners with a single location find the resources and support to expand into a franchise of their own. One of those, Extra Innings, was a business based in Middleton that specializes in baseball and softball instruction. After connecting with Entrepreneur’s Source, the business has expanded to 27 franchises across the country.

“I love hearing the ideas of independent businesses looking for the next stage of expansion,” he told BusinessWest.

When he’s not helping clients, Rosenkrantz is always looking for opportunities to speak to all kinds of groups — such as laid-off workers and college students — about the opportunities available through the franchise model.

“My mission is to educate anyone who has entrepreneurial curiosity about franchising,” he said. “Not everyone will or should own that path, but it’s my firm belief that, for anyone who has entrepreneurial curiosity, one of the steps in their educational process should be to learn about franchising.”

Simply put, he added, “franchising is an opportunity to be in business for yourself, but not by yourself.”

And it’s crucial, he went on, for both he and the client to feel strongly they’ve made the right match, because failed matches are bound to be discussed on social media. “I’ve never had a bad comment on social media. I stay in touch with a lot of clients years later, and I’m pretty proud of their successes in their respective franchises and industries.”

In the meantime, he said his mission is to create even more awareness. “I want to get onto more college campuses to spread the word about business ownership. It’s not for everyone, but those who want to learn about and explore entrepreneurship, franchising is an important part of that discovery process.”

Never Alone

It’s all about the support, he concluded — not just from the Entrepreneur’s Source, but from the chosen franchise’s parent company, which has a keen interest in each location’s success.

“Statistics say an independent business, within a two-year period, has a high probability of failure,” Rosenkrantz noted. “People don’t have that extra working capital; they don’t plan things beyond the starting phase. Franchises, though, have an exponentially higher level of success, both short- and long-term.

“People should be educated about this when they’re considering business ownership as a career opportunity,” he concluded. “I want to be a piece of that education. I’m making inroads, but it’s a long battle.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Entrepreneurship Sections

Venturing Forth

Paul Silva

Paul Silva says Launch413 one of two new startups he has launched himself, will fill a recognized gap in the region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Paul Silva uses the word ‘retired’ when he references his departure (at least as a full-time employee) from Valley Venture Mentors (VVM), the groundbreaking nonprofit he co-founded to assist startups and next-stage companies.

And he acknowledged that he gets some strange looks when he does, not simply because he’s only 40 — and people that age usually aren’t retired from anything other than professional sports — but also because they can’t fathom why he would leave the organization he has helped lead to great success.

As for that word ‘retire,’ he said it sounds better than most all of the alternatives he could use, like ‘moved on,’ or ‘left,’ or even ‘transitioned from,’ all of which, or at least the first two, have largely negative connotations, at least in his opinion.

“Unfortunately, we really don’t have a good word for when you hand your startup off to the next group of people,” he explained. “Maybe someone will come with one; I’m open to suggestions.”

Meanwhile, as to why he retired, that will take a lot longer to explain. There is a short answer — that he considers doing so beneficial for him (ultimately), VVM, and the region as a whole — but one couldn’t possibly leave it at that. One would need to explain why that’s the case, and we’ll do most of that in a bit.

First, though, we’ll get to that ‘better for the region’ part.

In short, Silva said he can now focus his efforts — or a good portion of them, anyway, because his time will now be split in a number of ways — on filling what he called the next “gap” in the region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.

That would be the one between organizations like VVM and the services they provide, and investing groups like the one Silva leads, River Valley Investors (RVI).

“For the past three years, VVM has been kicking ass at graduating startups, and good ones,” he explained. “And they come to my angel group and…”

His voice tailed off a bit as he noted that some come to angel investors ready, willing, and able to get to the next stage, and thus have relatively little trouble gaining all-important financial backing. Many others are willing, but not exactly ready or able. And this is where Launch413 comes in.

“Most early-stage investors don’t want to pay for the entrepreneur’s education in the many aspects of running a business, like selling and financials,” he explained. “So they don’t know how to operationalize and execute their business model. They graduate from VVM with a great business model, with evidence that it’s the right business, but they’re often missing great chunks of skills on how to get there; Launch413 parachutes in and fills the gap.”

But such skydiving will only fill part of Silva’s calendar. Indeed, as noted earlier, he is splitting his time between a number of different endeavors, including not one, but two new startups.

You have to know what your strengths and weaknesses are professionally. I know what I love to do; I love to teach and work with the entrepreneurs, and I’m really good at that. To be the CEO of an organization that’s scaling up is a very different set of skills.”

“I’m a glutton for punishment,” he said, adding that the second is called the Lean Innovation Institute (LII).

In simple terms, this initiative is an adaptation, and expansion, of VVM’s manufacturing accelerator, initiated last year, but orphaned by that agency (Silva’s word) because it didn’t exactly meld with its mission.

Sensing an opportunity, he essentially took ownership of that initiative with the intention of selling it to a host of sectors. And he’s already making headway with one he didn’t exactly expect — nonprofits, as we’ll see later.

The new adventures of Paul Silva — yes, he’s the one who wears the ties patterned with the likenesses of cartoon characters — are all spelled out on the back of his new business card — if you should happen to get one and have the time to read everything on it.

On the front, it declares he’s a startup advisor, angel-group leader, and innovation accelerator. For this issue and its focus on entrepreneurship, BusinessWest talked with Silva about those various talents and how he’s developed them into his own intriguing startups.

In Good Company

Getting back to why he was phased out of VVM at his request — that’s another way he phrased what’s happened — Silva said it’s beneficial for VVM because the agency is growing, expanding, and moving in new directions, and he is not exactly suited to lead an agency at that stage. By retiring, others more suited to that work can step in, he said, mentioning Liz Roberts, VVM’s CEO, by name.

As to why it’s better for him … well, if he stayed in a role he wasn’t really suited for, he said he wouldn’t enjoy it much, if at all.

“You have to know what your strengths and weaknesses are professionally,” he told BusinessWest. “I know what I love to do; I love to teach and work with the entrepreneurs, and I’m really good at that. To be the CEO of an organization that’s scaling up is a very different set of skills.

“I knew I had reached my limit,” he went on. “And if I wanted VVM to keep growing, either it was going to grow slower while I learned, or it could grow faster with Liz, who had already been there, done that, and been successful. And even if I could learn, I don’t think I would like it.”

So, after some due diligence and explaining to people that he was soon to be a ‘free agent,’ as he put it, Silva moved on to some things he does like.

Such as the broad mission of Launch413.

That name pretty much says it all — it’s focused on helping companies in Western Mass. get well off the ground — but its method of operation needs some explaining.

Working with several venture partners, Silva will parachute in, as he put it, and act as a venture fund in many ways, but the investment is in time and expertise, not dollars. In exchange for those investments, Launch413 gets a piece of the company’s future revenue.

This concept is called royalty financing, and while not exactly new, it has been gaining traction in recent years. That’s because entrepreneurs don’t want to give up a piece of their business, as in equity financing, but are more willing to part with a percentage of future revenues.

But royalty financing has benefits for both sides in this equation, especially in a smaller market like Western Mass., Silva explained.

“If I take equity in a company, the only way I get paid is if the company sells,” he said, adding quickly that there are other ways investors can reap dividends in such cases, but the company in question would have to be doing very well. “With a royalty deal, my incentive is in line with helping the company succeed; if they make money, I’ll get paid faster.”

Launch413 is currently working with one company, and Silva expects to soon be working on a batch of up to four. He will limit the number and start small, he said, to learn about what works and what doesn’t.

“We’ll figure out how much larger we can make the batches over time,” he said, adding that, given the great amount of entrepreneurial energy in the region, he expects Launch413 to flourish.

As for LII, as noted earlier, it is solidly based on VVM’s manufacturing accelerator, which was different from a traditional accelerator in that it focused on established companies rather than those just getting off the ground, which is why it became a business opportunity for Silva.

“VVM wants to focus on startups, which makes sense, because one of the great dangers with nonprofits is mission creep and losing focus,” he explained.

But the manufacturing accelerator was very similar to the traditional model in the way it prompted participants to identify who their customers were, what they wanted and needed, and how this should drive change moving forward.

And the LII (so named because it will hopefully involve companies in all sectors) will do all of the above with established entities, including a constituency Silva wasn’t exactly expecting when he launched: nonprofits.

He’s working with one at present — Pathlight, formerly the Assoc. for Community Living — and running pretty much the same curriculum put to use with the manufacturers at VVM.

Elaborating, Silva said Pathlight, which helps intellectually disabled individuals lead full and productive lives, developed a curriculum to help it meet that mission, one that could be adopted by other nonprofits doing similar work.

“They see this as an opportunity to create revenue from something they built that would help further their mission,” he explained, adding that the accelerator he’s running is focused on developing and maximizing this opportunity — one that amounts to a startup business.

“It looks like we have something that might make a difference here,” he went on, adding that he believes there is potential to add many more nonprofits to the portfolio moving forward because of changing dynamics within that sector, which has a huge presence in this region.

“The competitive pressure to raise grant dollars is intense,” he explained, “especially because Western Mass. has more nonprofits than just about anywhere else. So they need to find new ways of generating revenue; they need to think differently and in more innovative ways. It’s shocking how many of them don’t actually think about their customers and what they really need because they believe they know already.”

Meanwhile, he’s had discussions with Ira Bryck, director of the Family Business Center of Western Mass., about possibly running similar accelerators for groups of that agency’s members.

Overall, he said his business plan, like LII’s website, is very much a work in progress because, at the moment, he’s busy practicing what he preaches — meaning he’s figuring out who his potential customers are and what they want.

“If you asked me a year ago if nonprofits would be excited by this curriculum, I would have said ‘no,’” he explained. “But it turns out, among the sectors I’ve talked to, nonprofits are the most excited about this.”

Transition Game

Summing up the many changes in his life, career-wise at least, over the past several months, Silva acknowledged that he has taken a fairly sizable risk when it comes to leaving the steady employment provided by VVM.

But with the blessing of his wife — “she said, ‘this is the right thing for VVM; I’m proud of you’” — he gladly accepted that risk and moved on to something different and, in his opinion, at least equally rewarding, only in different ways.

This is what entrepreneurs do, and anyone who knows Silva is quick to grasp that he not only mentors and motivates such individuals; he is one himself.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Entrepreneurship Sections

Whatever It Takes

Kate Putnam

Kate Putnam says the WIT Fund hopes to raise $3 million over the next three years and focus on women-led companies.

Kate Putnam knew something special was going on — right from the first get-together.

That was back about 18 months or so ago, when a dozen women were invited to a breakfast to discuss ideas for making Western Mass. the place for women entrepreneurs and innovators.

“More than 30 showed up,” said Putnam, one of the organizers and chief spokespeople for a group that came to be known, after considerable discussion, as WIT, initially a joint venture of Valley Venture Mentors and the Economic Development Council of Western Mass.

That’s short for Women Innovators & Trailblazers, and also for What It Takes, or Whatever It Takes, said Putnam, a veteran business leader, entrepreneur, and mentor. She said the former describes both the membership and the constituency it will serve, while latter pretty much sums up what it’s ready and willing to do to carry out its mission.

And that is, officially, to “ignite a women-led innovation economy in Western Mass. and beyond.” Beyond that simple statement on the website (witrocks.org), though, the group is committed to helping women succeed in business through funding, mentoring, and more, as in ‘whatever it takes.’

Especially funding. Indeed, the group is creating what will be known as the WIT Fund, an angel-investing fund that will, as that name suggests, focus on women-led companies. The goal is to amass $3 million over the next three years or so, said Putnam, and write the first check perhaps as early as next spring.

She said there is considerable interest among WIT’s members in contributing to the fund, with the suggested contributions being $10,000 to $20,000.

“You can definitely do more,” said Putnam, adding that the group’s tagline will be something along the lines of ‘by and for women,’ which speaks broadly to a two-pronged mission.

“We want to inspire women to become angel investors,” she said, “and also help women who are starting businesses through mentorship.”

Indeed, WIT’s reason for being is perhaps better summed by its stated vision: “to build a community where women boldly define and fulfill their entrepreneurial ambitions,” said Allison Werder, another of the group’s organizers and leaders.

She noted that the ‘fulfilling’ part of the equation is often more difficult for women than it is for men, especially when it comes to statistics related to funding of entrepreneurial ventures, as we’ll see. And WIT was created to essentially do something about that.

“The overarching premise is women investing in women,” she told BusinessWest, adding that, in this case, ‘investing’ comes in many forms, including mentoring and educating women in how to be angel investors.

But perhaps most importantly, it will come through actual angel investing, she said, adding that the need is real — and growing.

Nationwide, women-led companies (a phrase that includes diverse teams of individuals) comprise roughly 28% of the individuals seeking capital nationally, said Putnam. But they receive just 17% of angel funding and only 2.5% of venture-capital funding.

“Even if you can get to the angel round of funding, the VCs aren’t stepping up,” she explained, adding that, while in Massachusetts, and especially Western Mass., the numbers are somewhat better (anecdotally), there is still considerable room for improvement, a reality that was the real inspiration for WIT’s evolving mission and growing membership.

Indeed, those 30 women who turned out for that initial meeting in 2016, and those who have joined since, understand those numbers and what they mean, said Putnam, adding that the membership represents a number of groups involved with women, entrepreneurship, economic development, or a combination of the above.

These include VVM, the EDC, the Women’s Fund of Western Mass., the Economic Development Council of Western Mass., the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, Northwestern Mutual, Rainmaker Consulting, the Shops at Marketplace, and Lioness magazine.

As for the membership, it has grown to 80 or 90 individuals, and includes the leaders of the many women’s colleges in the area, other educators, business owners and managers, entrepreneurs, creatives, marketers, and individuals working in various aspects of economic development.

“It’s a broad spectrum of people, both those looking for guidance and those looking to grow the entrepreneurial community,” said Werder, adding that they have come together behind a single unifying assignment, if you will.

“We think there is an opportunity to put a stake in the ground that Western Mass. is very friendly to female-led entrepreneurial businesses,” she explained, adding that a number of forces, from the women’s colleges and universities to VVM, have inspired such optimism.

And now there is another in WIT, a group that has a lofty goals and a name — actually, two of them — that says it all.

—George O’Brien