Kansas City’s hospitality recently took center stage at the national Rise of the Rest Summit in Washington, D.C.
Addressing ecosystem leaders around the nation, KCRise Fund managing director Darcy Howe shared strategies she’s used to build the KCRise fund, including a tactic that’s nourishing area startups — literally and figuratively.
In addition to showcasing her sidecar fund’s model, Howe shared the bi-monthly investor dinners she hosts at her home to connect local investors and startups over a meal. Howe cooked up the idea with Kansas City startup community builder Adam Arredondo to foster meaningful relationships between the two often siloed groups.
Howe said that dinner concept stood out to the audience, and that in addition to emails from several attendees, the idea has received some national media attention.
Judging by her response thus far, Howe believes this idea is about to take off — making Kansas City a model for other midsized cities.
“It’s not that unique in Kansas City to welcome people to your home that you don’t know that well,” Howe said. “A representative of Denver came up to me and said ‘Brad Feld told me about these dinners and then volunteered to do four of them in his own home!’”
The idea is simple. Arredondo gathers the entrepreneurs, and Howe drums up active and potential early-stage investors for an evening that builds relationships. The events are cross-generational and grassroots. At each dinner, a group of about ten founders and investors share their stories without the pressure of a presentation or networking event. The dinners are funded by KCinvestED, a KCSourceLink program that aims to educate area partners on early-stage investing.
“You’re just listening to each others’ stories, and they’re not pitches,” Howe said. “People are listening to where they came from, why they’re doing what they’re doing, what they love, what they’re frustrated with. I always end each dinner with the question, what can your community do for you?”
Howe and Arredondo both agree that authenticity is key for community building. Arredondo said that when founders and investors better know one another, the community has a better potential to grow — even if it doesn’t result in an investment deal.
“When you know someone personally, you care,” Arredondo said. “When you get a cold email and there’s no personal connection and that’s very different.”
Although startup ecosystems tend to talk about the importance of “serendipitous collisions,” Arredondo said that intentional collisions are important, too. When specific people meet they may bring more value to the community through their connection, Arredondo added.
He said that after each dinner an unmeasurable amount of connections are made.
“At times, there’s tension between those with money and those that need it,” Arredondo said. “There’s not always trust there, so we needed to figure out how to build it. With the dinners, it comes from a place of ‘I want what’s best for you, I’m not just trying to make money off of you.’”
Howe said that she believes these dinners will become a model for other midsized and underfunded cities.
“That was my challenge to the audience,” Howe said. “It’s amazing what you can do when you get off the sidelines.”
Led by AOL co-founder and serial entrepreneur Steve Case, the Rise of the Rest summit is a spin-off of the nationwide “Rise of the Rest” initiative he founded in 2014. As part of that effort, Case toured the country’s lesser-known entrepreneurial hubs to highlight their communities. The conference was held March 30 to 31 and invited one or more representative from each of Case’s 25 non-coastal, midsized Rise of the Rest cities. In 2014, Steve Case visited the City of Fountains during his nationwide tour, in which he hosted a $100,000 pitch competition.
Along with Howe, Techstars Kansas City managing director Lesa Mitchell and Andy Stoll, senior program officer at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, also attended the national conference.