Editor’s note: KCultivators is a lighthearted profile series to highlight people who are meaningfully enriching Kansas City’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. The KCultivator Series is sponsored by WeWork Corrigan Station, a modern twist on Kansas City office space.Expertise requires experience, said Melissa Roberts.
“I’ve had so many diverse roles and I’ve taken something from each of them,” the political operative-turned-executive for Enterprise Center in Johnson County said. “I started out running campaigns and it is not dissimilar to a startup environment where you’re in a small, windowless room with a bunch of dudes. You are trying to raise as much money as quickly as you can and also spend it as quickly as you can to achieve a singular goal within a very short timeline.”
In her role as ECJC’s vice president of communications and outreach, Roberts has found a need for tough love within the entrepreneur ecosystem, she said. Early stage businesses often lack an understanding of the best use of their time, Roberts said.
“Analysis paralysis is the biggest problem,” she said. “You just don’t know what to do first, or how to take the next step. A lot of times when I’m playing that coaching role with an entrepreneur, it’s just to sit down, understand their business, understand the options in front of them, and make a recommendation of a resource that they can use to determine what to do next.”
“I’m not an expert in an infinite number of industries or business models — I’m 30 years old,” Roberts added. “So, I try not to give too much advice on what I think you ought to do, but here’s how you can figure it out for yourself with the tools that can equip you.”
That requires the former public affairs consultant to tap into her own history for perspective, she said.
“I got some really lucky breaks at a young age,” she said. “I found myself in rooms where I was sitting down with the head of all of the unions in Boston as a 19-year-old girl from Kansas, trying to persuade them to do something in particular, think a certain way about an issue.”
Such experiences, for example, helped prepare Roberts for the challenge of developing a regional $5 million seed fund with a bi-state consortium of entities, she said.
“We had six different nonprofits around the table who all had different interests in being there,” she said. “Everybody was working with the same general goal in mind, but to keep that coalition together for three years, we had to apply some of the things that I learned early in my campaign career.”
It hasn’t been a perfect transition between roles, Roberts noted. When she initially returned to Kansas City, she founded her own consultancy, contracting work with organizations in the Washington D.C. area.
“I made all the rookie mistakes. I had all the rookie challenges that everybody has when they start their own business,” she said. “I had no concept of taxes — none whatsoever. So I went to the Kauffman Foundation and I asked for help on my taxes and they said, ‘Well, that’s really not what we do here, but you might check out this room full of entrepreneurs.’ And it happened to be 1 Million Cups in its very early stages.”
Working with organizers John McGovern, George Brooks, Nate Olson and Mike Craig, Roberts helped establish the weekly pitch event through social media outreach. That role, in turn, built connections that led her to marketing at ECJC, she said.
“Our mission has been consistent through the entire history of the organization,” Roberts said of ECJC, which was founded in 1995 as Kansas City’s first coworking space and incubator. “It’s creating jobs. It’s creating economic growth in Johnson County and by extension in the metro area.”
“The great thing about our work is that the [Board of County Commissioners of Johnson County] has always been extremely forward looking, which is unfortunately not always the case in this area when it comes to working across State Line,” she added. “But they’ve been forward looking in understanding that economic growth anywhere in the metro accrues to the benefit of Johnson County. We all grow together. So we have a lot of freedom to work outside of Johnson County as it’s appropriate to further our mission. That’s what’s helped us grow into this new age.”
Startland sat down with Roberts to learn more about her thoughts on Kansas City and what drives her passion for helping startups and small businesses. The KCultivator Series is sponsored by WeWork Corrigan Station, which provides entrepreneurs and businesspeople a community and a workspace.
Hometown: DeSoto, Kansas
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A historical figure you’d like to have coffee with and why: Mr. K (Ewing Marion Kauffman). He’s the foundation of Kansas City’s entrepreneurial community and he died before a lot of changes happened in our economy, like globalization. I often wonder what he’d think about the political environment we’re in today. You know, he was deeply involved in politics. I’d also like to hear what he’d have to say about how Kansas City is growing as an investment community because if he were here today he’d be the cornerstone champion of all these things.
Weirdest thing you’ve eaten: I like food, but I’m not that adventurous as an eater. My family is Polish, and there’s a Polish dish that I hate and that always sounds weird to people. Zacierka. It’s basically hot milk soup.
The animal you’d want to become in your next life: Honey badger.
You’re up to bat for the Royals; what’s your walk-up song: “Dancing Queen” by ABBA. A good walk out song is: 1) immediately recognizable; 2) energizing or ironic; and 3) intimidating or distracting to the pitcher. This is perfect because all you can think about when this song comes on is your amazing dance moves, not your curveball.
KC’s biggest area for improvement: Public transportation is one of the big issues that holds us back. It’s not entrepreneurial directly, but so many of the issues that we struggle with are about equity and diversity. The silos that we’ve created influence the entrepreneurial and economic development worlds — like KCMO versus Johnson County — and all those stem from us not being connected enough on a daily basis and not having enough shared projects that have a stake in. Public transportation could be transformative for Kansas City, not just because it would physically connect people from all over the city, but because it would give us a shared civic goal.
Favorite food joint in KC: I was born across the street from Joe’s Kansas City in Westwood, so I have a bias there. One of my favorite places to have a drink is Harling’s Upstairs. If you ask the guy behind the bar for a laminated history of Harling’s, it says that Tom Bloch started H&R Block in a cubicle in that space. So drinking there makes me feel connected. I also want to know what had to happen before they decided to laminate that sheet of paper.
An influential book in your life: Most recently it’s “Executive Presence.” Every young woman in the business world ought to read it. It helped me understand some things that are frustrating about our society, as well as which battles to fight and which to just live with. It also examines how to do that in a way that stays true to yourself and doesn’t cause unnecessary stress on a daily basis.
What keeps you in Kansas City: My family. This is home. As a boomerang, like a lot of people who come back, I didn’t have to and it was a really hard decision. I left behind a career that was really challenging and that had brought me success, to start all over in a new environment. And a lot of my expertise didn’t translate. You leave behind your professional status in a lot of ways. People don’t understand my accomplishments on the East Coast, but it’s totally worth it because this is home. I love Johnson County, this way of life and the quality of life for the price here. There’s nothing that matches it in the world.
New technology that you’re most excited about: We just got this laser cutter. It’s called the Glow Forge. I ordered it three years ago through a crowdfunding campaign. (I’m a Kickstarter addict.)
What you would do if you weren’t in your line of work: I would probably go to culinary school. I’m also a Food Network addict and I have dreams of starting a restaurant that will never happen.
What word or phrase do you hate the most? I could list so many. Other than buzzwords, I’d say anything mansplaining.
What’s the most underrated KC brand? It’s a restaurant, so you can see what I think about in my free time. It’s El Pollo Rey. It’s delicious, reasonably priced and I love it. I don’t know why you wouldn’t eat there every day.
An inspiration in your life: My little sisters, Trisha and Becca. They’re so much cooler than I am, and more accomplished.
You have a time machine and can travel anywhere in the past or future. Where and when do you go? I was a history major, so you know how hard this is for me to answer. My dad is going to kill me if I don’t say ancient Rome, but … Mission Control during the Apollo 13 crisis. But I’d want to be able to go into all the rooms and hear everything.
Your mantra or motto: My grandpa always said, “Always have someone you love, always have something you love to do, always have something to look forward to.”
Hidden talent or ability: I’d call it an emerging ability. I’ve been trying to learn how to speak Spanish. I take online classes and have a tutor that I meet with twice a week.
What keeps you awake at night? I know it’s totally cliche in this day and age, but I see so many ways on a daily basis that women are treated differently than men — so many little things that people do and they all trigger me so badly.