Kansas City expatriate Jack Spangler was pleasantly surprised by his hometown’s increased level of innovation, investment and momentum, the Uber thought leader said, reflecting on a recent return trip with the inaugural Back2KC class.
“That type of activity definitely wasn’t going on when I was in Kansas and right out of school,” said Spangler, now strategic retail partnership manager at Uber in San Francisco.
Materializing formally in October, Back2KC is an initiative of the KCRise Fund, Kansas City Area Development Council, and the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce — spearheaded by KCRise managing director Darcy Howe — targets native Kansas Citians who’ve become influential innovators after migrating to other cities. The goal is to bring leaders like Spangler back to their roots for a weekend of networking and exposure to the evolution of the city’s startup ecosystem.
“It put the idea back in my head that if I wanted to move back to KC, there is a lot going on that I would definitely be interested in working on,” Spangler said of the companies and ideas that have established a home base and flourished in Kansas City since he first left his home in Johnson County in 2012.
“I would definitely be interested in working with a lot of companies doing cutting-edge things and that’s going to increase even more,” he added.
An Oct. 4-5 Back2KC-organized tour of the city opened Spangler’s eyes to a new and trendy Kansas City, he said with an air of awe. Back2KC guests heard from heavy-hitting entrepreneurial leaders like Toby Rush of Zoloz and Davyeon Ross of ShotTracker, as well as experiencing First Friday and the recent Startup Crawl, which drew more than 600 participants and 50 startup exhibitors.
Redevelopment in the Crossroads Arts District, the evolution of co-working spaces like Plexpod, formerly vacant buildings being repurposed into thriving hubs of economic activity, and an ever-expanding skyline quickly caught the attention of the former Kansas Citian, he said.
Some of the most significant change has come to central areas of the city that have gone through times of distress, Spangler said.
“You see people choosing to live close to where they work — that just develops the community around it as well,” he said.
With tech-focused career aspirations after graduating from the University of Kansas, Spangler found himself in New York City, waving goodbye to his life in the Heartland. At the time, it seemed like a natural fit for someone looking to establish himself as a serious player within the tech space, he explained.
The innovator later landed in Silicon Valley as success in his career at Uber drove him to a higher position, he said.
“The tech scene in San Francisco is one of a kind. It’s the biggest in the world, with the most money, and with most people thinking about this stuff ending up out here,” he said of the region’s allure for top tech talent.
Such an attraction doesn’t have to be confined to Silicon Valley, Spangler explained, especially with forward-looking leaders like Howe. Back2KC and similar initiatives could one day evolve into educational opportunities for startups and organizations within the entrepreneurial ecosystem — aimed at not just luring talent back, but preventing it from leaving in the first place, he envisioned.
“A lot of our local universities are kind of focused on sending people to other places right out of college,” Spangler said. “It’d be cool to approach those types of things in terms of ‘Stay in KC.’”
Early exposure to entrepreneurial ideation could curb the trend of a blooming talent pool whose members choose to build their careers in other cities, he added.