Start Up Waco Opening Doors for Entrepreneurs

Article written by Vicky Kendig, contributing writer, published in the 2019 first quarter edition of Greater Waco Business magazine.


Waco’s movers and shakers are predicting exciting times for entrepreneurs in the city and in McLennan County. Representatives of the Greater Waco Chamber recently said that the area has experienced 82 consecutive months of economic growth, with the county well above the national average in labor-force growth. This is great news not only for established companies but also for individual entrepreneurs and start-up businesses.

To help accommodate the local economic boom, the nonprofit organization Start Up Waco opened a new, flexible coworking and program-focused entrepreneurship center called Hustle on December 7, 2018. Located at 605 Austin Ave. in the Woolworth Suites building in downtown Waco, Hustle aims to encourage, train, mentor, and offer space for entrepreneurs who might not have the capital to afford their own offices and who may need help in starting up or scaling up a business.

The Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce, Waco Foundation and Baylor University, as well as the city of Waco and McLennan County, spearheaded the formation of Start Up Waco and are actively involved in its operation.

Prices at Hustle start at $50 a month for a virtual membership that includes four one-day passes to the physical space, members-only events, access to a printer/copier, conference room, and mentorship. For $150 per month, members receive all of that plus high-speed wi-fi, coffee and snacks, and a business address. Dedicated desks at Hustle start at $275 a month and include all of the amenities plus locker storage, filing cabinet, a dedicated desk, and 24/7 access to the physical space.

At the wheel of this innovative work and collaboration space is the board of Start Up Waco, a nonprofit baby itself at a mere 18 months old. Start Up Waco board Chair and Waco Foundation Executive Director Ashley Allison said, “Waco is looking at some very big growth and development in the future. It’s wonderful and positive, but you have to make sure you’re considering every part of the community when those explosions happen – making sure everyone is there with a voice.”

Tate Christensen & Ashley Allison, Start Up Waco Board of Directors

The board has an important role to play. We all realize we’re in the middle of a renaissance,” Allison said. “I hope Start Up Waco will be a driver of the future.”

Waco Foundation has been a key player in forming the Start Up Waco board as well as sending local entrepreneurs to training around the country – something it did even before Start Up Waco came on the scene. The Foundation as an entity will not be taking part in Hustle’s mentorship program, but Allison sees the Foundation’s role as a “neutral convener” in fostering collaboration and inclusion and in providing staff time and training support for Hustle.

The Greater Waco Chamber also played a pivotal role in the development of Start Up Waco and was the first organization to provide significant funding for the project. The Chamber also served as a temporary “home base” for the initial Start Up Waco employees, providing desks and meeting space while Hustle Co-Working was under construction.

Inspiration for Hustle came in 2016 during the Greater Waco Chamber’s annual InterCity Visit, where several community leaders visited Nashville and the entrepreneur center there. The attendees from McLennan County had explored other entrepreneurship centers around the country, but Nashville was “the pilot light that ignited the flame,” said Start Up Waco board member Mark Reynolds, who was on the trip.

Allison said that many people caught the vision during that visit, but she and Tate Christiansen could not stop talking about it. During a cab ride to the Nashville airport, their animated conversation centered on their experience.

“We had just seen this amazing entrepreneurship center,” she said. “It was an electric atmosphere. You could tell things were happening in there. There was no reason we couldn’t have it in Waco.”

They decided then and there that “we’ve got to make this happen in Waco. And we won’t shut up about it!” Allison said.

Kris Collins, vice president of economic development at the Greater Waco Chamber, agrees with Allison’s assessment of the area’s phenomenal business growth. She’s on the board of Start Up Waco and is an enthusiastic proponent of Hustle and its potential to advance entrepreneurship in this area.

Collins describes Hustle as a central physical place for business idea-makers – a “gathering space with a front door for people to go through” to get the help they need. It is a road map to collaborative service providers within the greater Waco community.

Many entrepreneurs work out of the home, a coffee shop or other geographically scattered spaces. Hustle gives them a place to collaborate and hold meetings, to access resources, to learn, and to build “more legitimacy for business,” Collins said. Quickbooks 101 was the topic of a recent free class offered to members.

Hustle also provides opportunities to break up the work day with yoga sessions, small concerts, and weekly entrepreneurship presentations by 1 Million Cups Waco.

Soon to be added is a mentorship program to connect business leaders with new entrepreneurs just starting out, as well as those who have been in business for a while but want to scale up and take their companies to the next level. Thirty local leaders from business and industry are ready to mentor paying members of Hustle when the program is fully instituted. Others in the community who are not members may also sign up for a free one-hour mentoring session.

Though Hustle is open to all entrepreneurs of the area, it is “particularly helpful for newer businesses,” Collins said. If collaboration is a main facet of Start Up Waco and Hustle, diversity and inclusion are certainly objectives as well. “Start Up Waco is supposed to be a very diverse and inclusive organization,” Collins said. “It’s about providing resources and access for all, not just in Waco, but all across McLennan County.”

Board of Directors, Start Up Waco

The board’s 14 members are ethnically diverse. Collins said, “The make-up of the board is reflective of the desire to have that diverse group of inputs into the organization as well.”

Board member and founder of Arroyo Consulting and Education Strategies Fernando Arroyo, who was president of the Sanger Heights Neighborhood Association, has seen the struggles of entrepreneurs in his area. After attending a Waco Foundation-funded trip for training on how communities collaborate to foster economic development and community empowerment, he came back to Waco with a new sense of focus on assets already available in neighborhoods.

“One of the things that struck me was the drive, the risk and the hope that many local entrepreneurs in my neighborhood, who were primarily Spanish-speaking, had. The dreams that fell apart and the new dreams that emerged from those ashes were incredible,” he said.

Those experiences helped spur him to join Start Up Waco. He said that the educational institutions in Waco – Baylor University, McLennan Community College and Texas State Technical College – as well as other organizations, are remarkable assets “more than any of us individually can imagine.”

Entrepreneurship among Hispanics is “in the DNA of Waco,” Arroyo said. “Food trucks are kind of hip nowadays. Little start-ups are kind of hip nowadays. But those are things that have been pioneered by the Hispanic community for a long time, not because it’s hip but because of necessity to feed mouths.”

The entrepreneurship bug bit him when he was a child. Arroyo watched his uncles and aunts start their own businesses. His mother is an entrepreneur who started a cake shop in Waco and sold her goods solely through word of mouth. The business made enough to support and educate her children and helped Arroyo become the first in his family to graduate high school and obtain undergraduate and graduate degrees in college.

Another Start Up Waco board member and retired plant manager, Sherman Ayres, became involved partially because he liked the comprehensive nature of the organization. He said, “Waco is in the process of developing new solutions to address long-standing challenges, including how to engage and support the entire community… as an African-American professional, I am encouraged by the intentionality of this organization to be truly inclusive from the start. The board of directors is a well-balanced group of males and females and people of color.”

As for its potential impact on the area, he said the organization is “poised to create significant opportunities for our entire community, and, for me, that possibility is very exciting.”

Jeremy Vickers, Baylor’s associate vice president for external affairs since last June and a Start Up Waco board member, serves a key role for Hustle. He brings a wealth of entrepreneurial experience and knowledge to Waco, having been the executive director of the Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Texas Dallas and also co-founder of the Dallas Entrepreneur Center.

He was quick to point out that he was not involved in the early years of the local project but arrived in the midst of the roll-out of Hustle. “I showed up in the middle of this, so it’s almost unfair for me to pretend I’ve played a big role. I jumped on a fast-moving train. Now I’m throwing coal on the fire with a group of other people,” he said with a laugh.

Other board members differ with that assessment and instead look to Vickers as a guide through the entrepreneurship ecosystem. The very successful center in Dallas under Vickers’s leadership experienced some important missteps in its early years that taught him a lot. “Failure is learning. We want to share those failures, and we want to show what it’s like to run one of the spaces, like Hustle,” he said.

Vickers expects that Start Up Waco will increase the quality and quantity of entrepreneurship in the local community. “We want to be an inclusive environment where no one is left behind, where anyone who strives can succeed,” he said.

Gradual growth in past years put Waco in place to take advantage of a unique opportunity. “When Magnolia exploded, when it came on the scene, Waco was ready, not the other way around,” Vickers said. Because of that, Magnolia thrust Waco even further into its rapid growth.”

He describes the current local economic climate as a “window of opportunity” where entrepreneurship can really expand. A major goal of Start Up Waco is to create an environment where anyone will feel welcome and comfortable and to partner with those who haven’t been adequately served in the past.

Educating entrepreneurs and equipping them with the necessary skills is a key objective of Hustle. “The average person starting a business needs to know how to do 40 or 50 things to be a successful entrepreneur,” Vickers said. “Our training and experience typically only provide four or five things that we’re really good at.”

Hustle draws on the emerging gig economy movement, a cultural phenomenon that Vickers believes Waco is following. It is based on the Uber business model that allows people to follow their passion in their work and the idea that they may do three or four jobs at once.

By providing a space for the gig economy, leaders hope that the bright, talented graduates from the five local institutions of higher learning will choose to remain in Waco and establish businesses here. “We want to help people who have a dream,” Vickers said.

Alfred Solano, executive director of the Cen-Tex Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and a Start Up Waco board member, agrees. “Entrepreneurs face many challenges, and I am confident that Start Up Waco will be able to play a role in addressing those challenges,” he said. “When we talk about entrepreneurs, I think a lot of us have a mental picture of an individual with the next million-dollar idea in need of financial capital. My guess is that such a person could come out of the Hustle space, and I hope many do. However, I am as excited about the economic impact that will come from the photographer, party planner, baker, and restaurateur that will benefit from Start Up Waco.”

Mark Reynolds, north regional president of Extraco Banks and the secretary/treasurer of the Start Up Waco board, is leading the current efforts to raise $1.5 million to help fund Start Up Waco for the future.

The Waco-McLennan County Economic Development Corporation provided $750,000 to renovate the Hustle space downtown. Greg Leman from Baylor was the interim executive director who saw that project through.

Reynolds said the initial gift from the city and county was “the first step in really making this viable. We’re now in the phase of bringing the rest of the community together. We are challenging the business community to raise $1.5 million to fund operations for the first five years.”

Though Reynolds and his 15-20 fundraiser counselors are not ready to officially announce who it is, a major donor has just signed on to the project. Early donors and major sponsors are Extraco Banks, First National Bank of Central Texas, American Bank, and TFNB Your Bank for Life. “Kudos to their management teams for supporting our efforts,” Reynolds said. “We also have a broad range of individuals who are starting to step forward.”

The campaign is about two-thirds of the way complete and is right on schedule, but Reynolds says quite a bit of work still remains. The next phase is to finish the fundraising and find a permanent executive director. The search committee for that position has met and is conducting a nationwide search to find the right person for the job. Reynolds said, “We’re challenging ourselves to really look for high-quality candidates.”

Start Up Waco and Hustle will help the overall economy of the area, but they are not giveaway programs. “This is about building a can-do mindset and giving people tools,” Reynolds said. “We’re going to get people equipped to be able to create the businesses that are going to power our economy going forward. This is a time when we can provide opportunities for all Wacoans to succeed. You have to be willing to work and have ideas.”