By Nathaniel Luce
In the wake of a successful inaugural conference in late 2018, the Center for Entrepreneurship (C4E) sought to expand its reach and shine a brighter light on the startup and investment community in and around Vanderbilt.
The center hit its mark and then some: attendance grew over 60%, and the day’s events were filled with founders and investors from the Nashville area and points beyond, representing every stage of the business lifecycle.
“We wanted this to be equally an opportunity for Vanderbilt students to learn and engage, but also an opportunity to show off and showcase some of the thoughts and individuals working at Vanderbilt,” said Colleen Flynn (MBA’20), student lead for this year’s conference.
“We had over 200 people show up over the course of the day,” added Michael Bryant, C4E Director. “We learned a lot from last year and ended up getting a lot of positive feedback.”
The lineup of panelists and speakers exemplified the diversity of the entrepreneurial landscape at Vanderbilt and throughout Nashville, Tennessee, and the Southeast. Participants hailed from venture capital firms such as GrowthX and Touchdown VC; support organizations like LaunchTN and the Nashville Entrepreneur Center; and ventures of many stripes, including advisory services firm Ankura, healthcare analytics company Decode Health, and party-planning company Bach Nation.
The conference alternated between panels, breaks, and speaker sessions, offering attendees opportunities to absorb, reflect, and network. Breaks featured food and drink from the culinary incubator Mesa Komal and Nashville-based PollyAnn’s Tea Cakes, an intentional reminder that the startup world consists of more than headline-grabbing unicorns and billion-dollar enterprises.
“We’re considering entrepreneurship across the board,” explained Flynn, “not just scalable tech startups, because while that is something that Vanderbilt is working on, we also have individuals working on lifestyle companies and retail and other ventures. It pieces the two ends of the spectrum together.”
The panels themselves offered content for attendees anywhere within that spectrum. The Investment & Growth Panel explored non-traditional avenues of growth and when to raise capital. The Young Professionals Panel focused on launching careers at startups and VC firms. Founders and investors charted the challenges of starting a business on the Founder’s Journey Panel. The day concluded with The Female Founders Panel, presented by Aspire to Her (an organization founded by Vanderbilt graduates), where female entrepreneurs shared their startup stories and perspectives.
Lunch coincided with a pitch competition among student entrepreneurs, with $5,000 in prize money awarded to the top-2 finishers. Lane Abernathy (MBA’20) took home first place and $3,500 for ShoreSafe, an advanced power cable designed to reduce the risk of boat and marina fires.
“The competition was really strong,” said Abernathy. “It’s inspiring to see the different ideas students are coming up with, in many cases incorporating what they’re studying at Vanderbilt.”
For Flynn, balancing the interests of community members with the needs of the student body is key to the success of the conference.
“We were trying to create a safe space for open questions and answers with the undergraduate student body,” she explained, “to get individuals to think more of the C4E, in addition to the Nashville Entrepreneurship Center and LaunchTN , as resources for students who want to get involved either in a startup, start their own company, or get involved in startup investing.”
On the community side, speakers touched on the abundance of angel and early-stage investment. “Nashville is rich in angel investors,” said Chris Schellhorn, CEO of Confirmation (a company founded by Vanderbilt Business alum Brian Fox). “It’s a good place to start to find good seed capital to get your business off the ground.”
Mallory Whitfield, author of the Southeast Startup report, echoed those sentiments in her talk, but noted that a lack of growth-stage investment has held the Southeast’s startup ecosystem back.
“There’s so much amazing stuff happening in the region, and honestly, collaboration is the thing that would be so much more helpful to our region, at the city level, at the state level, and at the region level,” she said. “If we had more collaboration, we could have the funding rounds to keep those growing startups here. We want to keep people here in the south, because there’s amazing opportunities and so much great culture too.”
Challenges aside, the spirit of collaboration was certainly alive at the conference, and the energy surrounding entrepreneurship in Nashville and Tennessee was a common theme throughout.
“Tennessee is a great example of what is possible in the startup community,” Whitfield said. “There’s a blue ocean of opportunity in our backyard.”
For Abernathy, the conference and pitch competition affirmed the value he’s found in the conference this year and last. “Being able to listen to these panels, and the perspective, experience, insight, and knowledge…it’s been priceless,” he said. “It gives me a clearer vision and helps me understand what I need to do to succeed. It’s been one of the best resources I’ve had as a student entrepreneur.”