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.
Untapped potential and a community support system unmatched by most metropolitan cities amplify Jeff Shackelford’s ambition and maximize his love for Kansas City, he said.
“We’ve got to continue to let people know you have all the resources necessary [to succeed],” the Digital Sandbox executive director said excitedly, speaking of his work to mold Kansas City entrepreneurs — tasked with charting a new course for the city, anchored by an active entrepreneurial ecosystem.
“I jumped into Digital Sandbox [in 2013] with the idea that something is going to come along and I’m going to go head over heels,” he said of the accelerator program he launched in the second half of his career. Digital Sandbox is designed to aid early stage startups by providing them with access to support and proof-of-concept resources.
The effort followed Shackelford’s decades-long success with legacy companies like Sprint and such startups as Birch Telecom, where he served as co-founder. Each opportunity brought with it a new lesson — planting a seed for his future, he said.
“The opportunity to really help a lot of people has been the most rewarding five years of my career — despite having some great fun [in other positions],” Shackelford said.
Click here to learn more about Digital Sandbox.
A native of Blue Springs who’s lived much of his life within a 45-mile radius, Shackelford committed to seeing Kansas City thrive as an innovation hub long ago, he said.
“I thought I would leave a couple of times with some career opportunities … one thing led to another and I didn’t. I’ve been here forever … which now is terrific,” he chuckled, noting he did cross the Missouri state line to attend the University of Kansas.
Seasoned in startups, Shackelford looks to education as a crucial ecosystem builder in the Kansas City entrepreneur space, he explained, painting a picture of a future wired for innovation and curriculum redesigned to focus on preparing students for tech jobs and roles as startup leaders.
“We need to view our high school population as entrepreneurs with great ideas. How do we help them? Sometimes they believe there’s nowhere to go, sometimes they’re heading off to college. So, what do you do with some of these really great ideas?” he said. “I have a term I call ‘horses’ and we need to figure out how to grab them and move them forward — even if it means that young person is going off to college. Maybe they can retain some ownership, take that idea and turn it into a business.”
Startland News sat down with Shackelford to learn more about how he views his world. The KCultivator Series is sponsored by WeWork Corrigan Station, which provides entrepreneurs and businesspeople a community and a workspace.
Hometown: Independence, Missouri
A historical figure you’d like to have coffee with and why: I think [Thomas] Edison would be interesting, because he really was kind of an innovator versus an inventor. I’ve always thought Edison was more, “Hey, these things are out there, and we can do things with them.”
Favorite Movie: “It’s a Wonderful Life”
You’re up to bat for the Royals, what’s your walk-up song: Since its current — Little Big Town’s “Happy People”
Favorite food joint in KC: I would tell you I haven’t been back yet, but I used to love The Savoy, and now that it’s open again I’m looking forward to it because it looks like it’s pretty cool. One of the newer places — my wife and I live out south — we really enjoy sitting outside Bristol.
An influential book in your life: “The E-Myth Revisited.” Its told in a story fashion, but it talks about when you start a business, the need to build documented process and define the business versus just doing it every day. And then any book about Lou Holtz and his ability to motivate.
What you would do if you weren’t in your line of work: At my age and as I look at what I want to do next, I would tell you I would be very happy running a little moped shop on the island of Maui. I tell people there’s going to be a sign that says, “If I’m here, we’re open; if I’m not, we’re closed.” I don’t think I’d want it to be huge or change the world. I think I’d be happy with a small, what I call, a “lifestyle business.”
What’s the most underrated KC brand? I think Kansas City as a brand is incredibly underrated. We do a poor job of selling our region. This is an incredibly livable city; we have all the resources needed [to start a business.]
You have a time machine and can travel anywhere in the past or future. Where and when do you go? I would love to see a view into the future. I’m not sure I’d go too far because I probably wouldn’t be able to understand much of it.
Favorite travel locale: Hawaii. We went there for our honeymoon and we try to go on five-year increments of our anniversary. We love it! We hate how long it takes to get there. Once we’re there, we don’t do anything. We just relax.
What is Kansas City’s biggest need: We need to look at our high school and postsecondary educational model with respect to “How do we train people to move into tech jobs?” Launch Code is doing a great job, but we’ve got to accelerate the path for those people who want to go into coding and the user experience — the UX design stuff that doesn’t require a four year — even a two year — program. The number of openings we have in the city for those kinds of skills far outweighs the risks. We’ve got to figure out a way to engage or high school students earlier and more rapidly.