As we prepare for next week’s kickoff of Innovation and Entrepreneurship Week on the Hill, we revisit our Startup Policy Workshops series. Our Cookeville session explored guidance for relationship-building with policymakers, the intersection of “town and gown,” and how favorable policy impacts universities.
Last fall, LaunchTN hosted seven Startup Policy Workshops, from Memphis to Kingsport, focused on two goals: to educate Tennessee entrepreneurs and ecosystem builders on engaging politically with lawmakers, and to explore how these relationships can impact startups and drive business growth.
As we prepare for next week’s kickoff of Innovation and Entrepreneurship Week on the Hill, where entrepreneurs, support organizations, and Tennessee state legislators gather to discuss the issues most relevant to new business creation, we look back at our workshop at The Biz Foundry in Cookeville.
Our panelists discussed topics including opportunities for policy engagement, for both rural and metro area entrepreneurs. The conversation also explored the intersection of “town and gown” between a university’s talent pipeline and its local and regional businesses, and how favorable policy can allow universities to be agile in adapting to the talent needs of emerging industries.
Our guest panelists:
Kevin Christopher is an IP attorney and Principal with Rockridge Venture Law, supports coders to creatives with intellectual property needs. He has worked with both Nobel and Grammy winners, and commercialized over $1B in public-private R&D assets.
Dr. Philip Oldham has served as President of Tennessee Tech University since July 2012. His tenure has seen the expansion of assistance to veterans and servicemembers, the establishment of a cybersecurity concentration in computer science, and a reduction in class sizes to an 18:1 student-to-faculty ratio.
George Halford’s tenure as Cookeville-Putnam County Chamber President came to an end after 2019, but his 16 years of leadership with the Chamber saw achievements such as the launch of the Highlands Economic Partnership in 2006, workforce development, and education.
Following is a lightly edited recap of the discussion.
What would you say to a student, small business owner, or client who is skeptical about engaging in policy and government?
Kevin Christopher: Whether it’s an entrepreneur’s second or third venture, a business later in their career or during their time as a student, entrepreneurs come from all walks of life. As a result, there’s a great range of life experience among entrepreneurs, but often the less life experience you have, the less you know about how policy works and why it’s impactful. Often you don’t know what you need until it hits you in the face, and then you’re scrambling.
What you have to remember is that policy works behind the pace of business and technology, and our firm is focused on trying to adapt policies with how business is changing. For example, there’s new services you can offer with telemedicine or telenutrition that are set up to prosper with the available technology, but the policies surrounding them may be way behind.
By engaging with local or state policymakers early, you can find out who can be your advocate down the road. Remember, legislators at the state level are working part time, and do not have full-time staff. Sometimes there’s less bandwidth among legislators to engage with these sorts of topics, so finding your champion can help, and having that existing relationship can be critical.
George Halford: Entrepreneurs are the maintenance person and the bookkeeper and marketing person in their jobs, and they’re usually the government affairs people, too. It’s all about creating relationships and understanding the business you’re in, as well as trying to carve out some time early in the process to get to know your public officials so that when you do need them, you already have somewhere to start.
Dr. Philip Oldham: It’s too important not to get involved. However, depending on the nature of the venture, it may be critical to immediately engage or may not be, and obviously as an entrepreneur you have to be strategic on how you spend your time. They may not still print this on lottery tickets, but “you have to be present to win.” You can’t overstate the need to be present and in those meetings. But it takes time to build those relationships, and you do have to gauge as an entrepreneur where your time is best used.
GH: Legislators depend on others to give them information and educate them on issues, but it’s a very relationship-driven process. Here at the Cookeville Chamber, we have 1,000 member firms, and 90% employ fewer than 25 people. We’re trying to adapt and adjust to new businesses and represent you. People come to our office and we can refer you to who you need to go to, and in that way we are a conduit to the community, as well as a relationship manager with our policymakers.
You all talked about building relationships. How do you do that effectively, and what makes for an effective meeting when you’re just starting out in the relationship-building process?
PO: It’s not the meeting necessarily; it’s the in-between meetings where the relationships with policymakers are built. It’s not that different than building a relationship with anybody else — they’re very normal people [laughs]. Over time, you find points of contact, mutual friends, or common experiences. The more you develop a natural relationship with them as an individual, there’s an opportunity to build trust, which leads to effective and productive meetings.
I’m not aware of a single legislator that is not very interested in growing jobs or growing economies, particularly in the rural areas of the state. They’re very interested and motivated to do something to help, and sometimes it’s a matter of making them aware of emerging issues and pointing them in the right direction. They’re well intentioned, and they do want to help.
GH: One day I just decided I should go to County Commission meetings, where at first you’re going to the meetings but don’t necessarily want anything. At those sorts of meetings, they’re talking about public policy at the local level, so the information could be important for entrepreneurs, and you just keep going. All of a sudden, you’re going across the street for dinner with them afterward and then that’s when they know you.
KC: By nature of the role, legislators are associated with a political party, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re political. I’ve found legislators here in Tennessee to be very relational and very supportive of business. When I’m looking to talk about business, very rarely does politics surface in the conversation. We go in during an event like Week on the Hill and say, “This is what’s important to our audience,” and that’s how you develop the working relationship.
Dr. Oldham, what are items on the university’s policy agenda, to the extent it can shape what you’re trying to do at TTU?
PO: Besides generally looking for resources, our biggest policy driver is to push for the speed and flexibility to be able to move quickly enough to address emerging needs and expectations from students and employers. A lot of what we ask the state is to give us flexibility with starting new programs, or entering into public-private ventures that allow us to engage with the private sector in quicker, more creative ways. It’s all geared towards preparing students.
Every company I talk to, whether they’re from outside the state looking to move in or otherwise — everything is driven by the availability of talent. I feel very strongly that the university’s mission is to provide that pipeline, particularly in information technology disciplines.
Take Amazon’s recent hiring announcement in Tennessee: Half of those 5,000 jobs are in IT, and we’re one of the leading producers of computer science (CS) graduates at Tennessee Tech. But to come up with 2,500 CS graduates, that really dwarfs the middle Tennessee pipeline. So what we did is a “cluster hire,” where we created and hired five new professors in CS in 2019, positions that didn’t exist before, to open up that talent pipeline and make sure we aren’t the limiting factor in producing those graduates.
That’s one example of how we need to be ahead of the curve as a university. We have to be thinking downstream, because sometimes we can’t pivot that quickly.
What are you hearing from clients or Tennessee chamber members as far as issues they’re running into?
KC: We have offices in Nashville, Cookeville, and Chattanooga, and are about to launch in Durham, NC. We’re in a rural community here in Cookeville, so we may have a batch of different needs than elsewhere in Tennessee, but what is common among all of them are the challenges in growing, the costs of starting out small, and lack of access to capital or established industries. Tennessee Tech University is doing all of this great work to churn out quality students into the workforce, but the way we fund small businesses here is antiquated.
As far as industry needs, cybersecurity is a big issue with a lot of our clients, and if you look at the venture capital profile landscape, cybersecurity is one of the top two in terms of activity because it touches everyone. Some policies could be directed to help work through some of those issues with capital access, growing pains, and building our talent pipelines.
GH: We do have a nationally acclaimed workforce development program in this region. We just need to do a better job of telling our story.
[Note: Check out Tennessee Tech’s Cybersecurity Education, Research, & Outreach Center]
LaunchTN and our Network Partners convene in Nashville beginning Feb. 25 for our annual Innovation and Entrepreneurship Week on the Hill, where entrepreneurs, support organizations, and Tennessee state legislators gather to discuss the issues most relevant to new business creation.