Entrepreneurship: The Most Powerful Force In The World

This post was written by Nathan Stephens, Owner, Groundswell Media Productions

I’m not well traveled. The youngest of six children from a blue collar working family in Missoula, Montana, my travel has consisted of many car rides to cities and towns in my own state and the Pacific Northwest. This was only the third time I had flown and the first time by myself. It had been about a decade since my last flight when I’d traveled to Denver to visit my sister Julie and her family during a difficult pregnancy. To say I was apprehensive about this trip to the UP America Summit in Iowa City, was a slight understatement.

It was Monday night and I’d just returned home from helping co-organize and run a Startup Weekend in Bozeman, Montana and I had 12 hours at home before having to drive three and half hours to Spokane, Washington to get on a plane to Seattle. I was tired and fatigued, running on fumes and as I checked my flight itinerary for the following day’s trip I hadn’t noticed that the time I’d actually just checked was for my return flight on Friday around 2:00 PM. So when I arrived in Spokane at 12:30 PM on Tuesday afternoon I was pleased with myself for being early and took it easy finding parking and finding the terminal for the departing flight. It was then when I checked in at Alaska Airlines that I first realized that I’d missed my flight to Seattle by several hours.

The airline said I could still use the ticket on the next available flight to Seattle for a small fee. The flight was taking off in 30 minutes, so as soon as I had my ticket I dialed my wife Jennifer and told her what had happened and asked her to get a hold of Victoria Schramm, Special Events Manager at UP Global. Victoria had been helping all along to make sure I could get to Iowa without any problems. My wife did everything she could to encourage me and told me, “Everything happens for a reason; something good will come out of this.” I wasn’t so sure but I didn’t have much time so I said goodbye to my wife, thanked her for reaching out to Victoria, and boarded the plane for Seattle.

When I arrived in Seattle, the first thing I did was to check in with my wife. She’d been able to connect with Victoria and Victoria had me scheduled on the next available flight out of Seattle to Chicago. Unfortunately, that next flight wasn’t until almost midnight on the Red Eye, nearly 9 hours away. My heart sunk and at that moment I realized I wouldn’t be into Iowa until the next morning. The UP America Summit that I was traveling to would be starting at 8:30 that morning, not long after my flight arrived in Cedar Rapids. I was beside myself as I realized that I’d likely be too tired to attend the days’ events.

I spent the next several hours talking with my wife on the phone, checking e-mail, and visiting bagel shops and coffee bars – anywhere I could sit down for a bit in front of my laptop and avoid thinking about how long it would be until I arrived in Iowa. Towards the end of the evening I spent a couple of hours in the Alaska Lodge working on my laptop and having dinner and drinks. As my laptop battery dipped below 10%, I realized I needed to find a place to charge up. I left the Alaska Lodge and found the terminal for my departing flight where I spent the next few hours charging my laptop and visiting with folks traveling out of the same departure gate to exoctic places like Cuba via Miami International – anything to pass the time.

Finally, it was almost midnight and my flight to Chicago was called. As I sat in my window seat, I sunk in for the four hour flight. Between naps I visited with the folks next to my seat, a lovely husband and wife couple in their early forties who were on their way back to Ohio. I enjoyed light conversation with them and talking with the husband about the IT work he did with for the company he worked for back in Ohio and telling them both about my reason for traveling to Iowa.

When I finally landed at Chicago O’Hare I was relieved; I only had an hour and a half until my connecting flight to Cedar Rapids. I found the departing terminal, took a seat and did one last check on my laptop to make sure I was at the right terminal and had the right time. I struck up a nice conversation with a family that were waiting for the same flight to fly back home to Cedar Rapids. At this point, I started feeling excited about getting to Iowa. The family I was visiting with was very curious about this guy from Montana and I had a great time telling them about my experiences planning and running Startup Weekends in my state and how excited I was to make it to the UP America Summit.

I also began to realize how tired I was; including the drive to Spokane, I had been in transit around 20 hours and fatigue was setting in. I looked forward to getting to Iowa so that I could get to my hotel and sleep for part of the day before meeting up with the rest of the attendees. As I took my seat near the front of the small aircraft, I took a deep breath and sat back for the short connecting flight. I hadn’t really taken notice of the person who had just boarded the flight and would be sitting in front of me. I heard my name, “Nathan?” I looked up and realized that Marc Nager, President and CEO of UP Global was not only sitting in front of me but he knew who I was.

This was a defining moment for me. I’d spent the last couple of years idolizing what Marc had done with Startup Weekend and I really had no idea what to expect when I’d finally be able to meet him at the UP America Summit. And now, here I was on a one hour flight with Marc to the event that he was responsible for making happen. I asked him what he was doing on this flight and he’d told me how he had been at an event at Google in Silicon Valley and had jumped a Red Eye to make it to the summit. I realized my wife was right, everything does happen for a reason. The good that came out of missing my flight to Seattle was getting one-on-one time with Marc, someone I looked up to and wanted to emulate in my own entrepreneurial startup life.

To my surprise, this was only the beginning of the good that would come out of the week. Arriving in Cedar Rapids we were quickly taken by taxi to the Sheraton in Iowa City where we’d be staying for the week. Marc said to meet him back in the lobby in the next hour and we’d be shuttled to Iowa Hawkeyes Kinnick Stadium where the attendees were waiting for Marc to kick things off. Any ideas of sleeping went out the window. My energy was high after meeting Marc and I couldn’t wait to get to the day’s events. After taking a quick shower and changing clothes, I was off to the stadium.

From the moment I walked into the event, my life was forever changed. I began to meet Startup Weekend organizers from all over the country, staff from UP Global, and amazing innovators and entrepreneurs from Iowa. I was particularly impressed with the UP Global team: Victoria Schramm and Martha Young quickly stood out as two of the work horses that made the event happen and I can’t thank them enough for all the hard work that they put into the event and in making sure I arrived.


It was an amazing first day in Iowa beginning with the barcamp-style core conversations with other organizers at Kinnick Stadium to the Innovation Expo at the Marriott in Coralville where I learned about the innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystems thriving in Iowa City, Cedar Rapids and other communities. I was particularly excited to meet several students from the universities at the Expo who were working on their own startups. One was an amazing artist who does anime style artwork. Others were med tech students creating software to read CAT and MRI scans to better determine the necessity of surgery for patients in order to minimize the need for exploratory surgeries. The evening wrapped up with dinner and the Startup Iowa Town Hall where I got to listen to speakers Scott Case, Founding CTO of Priceline.com and Founding CEO of the Startup America Partnership, and Scott Heiferman, Founder of Meetup.com.

Scott & Scott

That evening when I returned back to the Sheraton, I couldn’t possibly sleep even though I had been awake for over 36 hours. I found a table in the lobby with a plugin nearby and camped there for several hours visiting and receiving mentorship from experienced economic developer Charles Zahl and my friend Rob Irizarry, who also had come from Montana and was the lead organizer for Startup Weekend Bozeman. This ended up being a great location to meet and visit with other summit attendees as they ventured past on their way to the local watering holes. I got to meet and visit with many very cool Startup Weekend organizers like Ben Gilbert, Program Manager of the Garage program at Micrsoft that is the company’s answer to 20% time which allows employees to work on side projects in a physical space; Linda Olson, Founder of Tampa Bay WaVE, a nonprofit that helps entrepreneurs turn ideas into growing tech ventures in Tampa Bay; and Shauna Causey, Vice President of Marketing of Decide.com, recently acquired by eBay and hailed by BusinessInsider.com as “the Kayak of gadget-buying websites, helping you understand when it’s the best time to buy.”

The following day we took buses to Cedar Rapids where we learned about the impact of recent floods in the region and how entrepreneurial leaders, like Andy Stoll and Amanda Styron of Seed Here Studio, took advantage of the rebuilding time afterwards to create amazing startup ecosystems in their own cities which included finding ways to get seed capital and creating coworking centers like Vault. After an amazing tour of the Cedar Rapids Public Library and more great core conversations at Whipple Auditorium, we were off to Celebration Farm where we ate amazing BBQ pulled pork from pig farmer Carl Blake and wound down the last evening with celebration, dancing and more great conversations.


When I returned to the Sheraton that night, I took my place at the lobby table from the night before and sat down to dream about my next startup, a sticker company, and was joined by Charles Zahl. I enjoyed winding down and visiting with the attendees. Marc Nager and other UP Global staff and attendees stopped by to say hello and visit and I spent this time enjoying this new community of which I was a part.

This Up Global family of entrepreneurs and innovators, leaders and executives had left its mark on me. As I woke the next morning to take the long flights home back to Montana, I left with a passion and fire to bring back this experience with me. On the first day of the event Marc said, “entrepreneurship is the most powerful force in the world.” I can’t wait to see what this force continues to do for my life, my communities, my world; I can’t wait for the next UP America Summit!

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UP UP UP and Away We Go To UP America Summit!

UP America Summit is where the top startup community leaders from the US come together.  I’m among such amazing people who make a difference every day by helping to create startup communities and ecosystems throughout the country.

There is loads of information here and as always tons of bright and innovative peeps.

One thing I love about any Startup gathering is the collective audience knowledge sharing.  Here are some of my favorite insights thus far here at #UPAmericaSummit13:

Great advice from meetup.com‘s CEO Scott Heiferman

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Remember the little startup called priceline.com, quoting Scott Case

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And my two cents –

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But before this fabulous town hall gathering, the fabulous University of Iowa hosted day sessions at the amazing Kinnick Stadium.  BTW Kenan Flagler Stadium doesn’t hold a candle to the size of this epic venue.  It is actually sunken and almost half of the seats are below the road level.

Here is Kinnick Stadium in all it’s glory-


We heard tales from the “Makers Movement,” and how to host a Makers Startup Event using Raspberry Pi or going to a Fab Lab and how to use a “Top Chef” model to gather materials. We talked about how to help cross generational collaboration to help grow and connect startup communities and how it is mostly a language problem. Among many other insightful nuggets from these no talk, all action people. Of course no Summit would be complete without a little #shenanigans, which leads me to end with this-

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Take it from me…you should look in your community and try to experience your startup community first hand.  I challenge you to go to a startup event be it Startup Weekend to TechCocktail or Pitch party.  Get it involved…you won’t be disappointed.  BTW – There is a StartUp Weekend coming up in Chapel Hill, Nov. 15-17, signup here.

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Grassroots Innovation: It’s about Permission

This post was originally posted here. 

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending the UP America Summit, in friendly Iowa City, Iowa. It was put on by UP Global, the folks behind Startup WeekendStartupDigestNEXT, and Startup America. They got a bunch of us who run innovation programs together for a dedicated corporate track, to share our common learnings, struggles, and success stories. I represented The Garage, Microsoft’s grassroots innovation community, along with people from Coca-Cola, Sprint, The World Bank, GoDaddy, American Airlines, ACT, Hallmark, and others.


I put together a few of the key themes that emerged over and over within the group and wanted to share them here. The one that absolutely resonated with everyone instantly, is the title of this article, and the the first point I’d like to call out:

  1. Grassroots innovation is about permission. Fueling creative tinkering with new ideas can’t be management-directed, but it must be management-supported. Those closest to the customers, problems, and existing products (typically at the bottom of a hierarchy) have the most personal drive to try a new approach to a problem, and this autonomy fuels their projects long after an executive mandate has worn off. However, if an employee feels that their efforts to innovate are counter to their “real job,” the project tends to die off over time. One thing that we practice at The Garage is having passionate employees plan and organize a Garage Week (think: blue-sky hackathon within an product team), but have executives promote participation via an email to the whole organization to grant such “permission to innovate.”
  2. Innovation is about a culture shift, not just money or ideas. Nobody owns innovation. Neither infinite resources, nor the “perfect platform” to surface the most innovative ideas will succeed without an organization-wide chutzpah toward innovation. We found that many of our companies have seen various forms of “internal Kickstarters,” idea voting platforms, and contests that did not achieve their goal of finding “that next big innovative thing” without a cultural embrace.
  3. Open innovation is important. Mathematically, the sum of experts with skills and experiences outside of any given company is larger than the sum of experts inside. We are often blind to a future innovation because we don’t embrace those outside our organization who can truly define the problem and solution. Getting employees outside the walls of the company and out into the community is paramount.
  4. Access is the greatest thing we can provide startups. And more specifically, access in a timely manner. If a startup is working toward a partnership with a large company, they often waste an incredible amount of time being passed around internally. If we really want to encourage open innovation and allow an idea to flourish, the greatest service we can do is recognize if it isn’t a good fit early, cut the chord, and save the startup valuable time by being honest and closing the door. If we can think of an introduction we can make that’s a better fit, that’s a bonus too. The list of startups that had an interesting new product that failed due to partnerships with a big company that never quite materialized is far too long.
  5. Innovation isn’t new. We can learn from our company history. Every billion dollar company, whether it is innovative today or not, had at least one enormous innovation in the past. It could have been business model (such as the advent of loyalty programs) or technology (such as the computer mouse), but that billion dollars didn’t come from doing the status quo. So, we should look within our companies at the environments that created those innovations in our past. The nuance is that recreating these conditions is hard since the these often occurred before exponential growth. Innovation at scale is a much trickier problem since it involves a massive amount of communication, collaboration, and precision. But at least, by examining our history of disruptions, we’ve got a great place to start.

The most important thing that we can do now: keep sharing our successes and failures with each other. We can approach corporate innovation the same way that we approach Startup Weekends: experiential education, where we learn by trying new things, and iterating when something seems to stick.