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 Plexpod, a progressive coworking platform offering next generation workspace for entrepreneurs, startups, and growth-stage companies of all sizes.
Living in Kansas City couldn’t have been further from Tina Peterson’s mind as she plotted out her legal career and pushed aside dreams of designing the next great car.
“I was working for a lawyer — because I thought it was going to be a [patent] lawyer — and then I got recruited by Sprint,” Peterson, manager of the Sprint Accelerator, recalled of her early career turn to engineering and her ultimate relocation to the company’s hometown.
“I thought I’d be here for a year and I never left,” she laughed. “Nineteen years later, here I am.”
Living in a city most travelers fly over, Peterson was further caught by surprise when she started to connect with groups of people working to build Kansas City’s startup ecosystem.
“These were my people. I don’t know how else to explain it. … My crazy thoughts didn’t seem so crazy when I told these folks, so I just started to hangout with them.”
Shifting gears — and fostering a culture of innovation within her friend group — pushed Peterson to take another leap, she noted.
“We were just helping each other follow ideas or start programming — bring out more people in this space of entrepreneurship,” Peterson detailed with a fondness for the era in innovation.
“At some point in 2011, it was like, ‘Something’s about to happen,’” she continued. “You could just feel it in the air. We just found out that Google Fiber had selected Kansas City and that was going to light the fuse even more. So I started pitching this idea to anyone who would listen inside Sprint …”
More than idea, Peterson’s line of thinking eventually turned into the Sprint Accelerator — a corporate innovation hub that’s guided more than 50 startups through their early-stages since 2014.
When people think of the Sprint Accelerator, they often think of Kansas City’s original Techstars cohort — launched in February 2014 — but in reality, the two aren’t the same, Peterson noted.
“If they really think back, they’re like, ‘Oh, you existed since January of 2014,’ which was when we opened the doors to the physical space. But like I said, I started pitching the idea in 2011. I met [Sprint Accelerator founder] Kevin [McGinnis] in 2012. It was totally informal.”
With Sprint on board, Peterson and her team began taking notes as the wheels of Kansas City’s startup ecosystem began to turn, she said.
“We started launching programming in 2013, so whether people remember it or not, we were doing programs. We were doing some sponsorships way back in 2013 at the same time we were building out the space,” Peterson added, referencing the accelerator’s former location in Kansas City’s Crossroads Arts District.
Although launching the accelerator was a road unexpected for Peterson, every mile traveled has brought her success, she said in reflection of her journey to Kansas City and how it shaped local, startup culture.
“I think it was in July 2014, we hosted an event … somebody came up to me and they said, ‘I can’t remember a time when we weren’t coming to events at the Sprint Accelerator,’ and I was like, ‘That’s it. We’re part of the community. We made it. We’re ingrained,’” she said smiling, noting the way Sprint became a major corporation fully embedded in a growing startup ecosystem.
Click here to read more about Sprint’s plans for the 2020 accelerator cohort.
Startland News talked with Peterson about seafood, barbecue and why she stays in Kansas CIty. The KCultivator Series is sponsored by Plexpod, which reimagines a workspace model where businesses share resources and grow together.
Hometown: Brookings, South Dakota
A historical figure you wish you could follow on social media and why? I’m gonna say Einstein. We already know he has a lot of great quotes, so could you imagine the tweets? We share a birthday, so I think we’re bonded in that way. And then he’s nontraditional in how he came to his path of recognition as well. Who wouldn’t want to follow Einstein? I mean, seriously, hair tips.
Weirdest thing you’ve eaten: It’s weird in the context of, none of my family thinks it’s weird, but I thought it was strange. My mom took us to a very traditional, Haenyeo meal, which is an island off the coast of South Korea called Jeju. They have these divers and they bring out seafood and you eat it raw … parts of it are still alive and moving.
Best thing you’ve eaten in Kansas City: I haven’t had it in years, honestly. But I used to love this a lot. I just don’t eat as much barbeque as I used to, but Jack Stack’s crown ribs. They’re delicious, but they’re ginormous, so you’d have to bring friends!
If you could go to any concert what would it be: I feel like there’s a ton of good concerts. I’m just not a huge concertgoer. I like really small concerts, honestly. But I really liked Elvis as a kid. Who knows why … no idea why. Or Tina Turner because we share a name and she’s a strong woman, amazing dancer.
Why do you call Kansas City home: When I sort of fell into this whole space of entrepreneurship and seeing the trajectory of growth in Kansas City, that was the first time I can remember consciously saying, “I’m not moving away from here, this is the place you want to be.” Finding that as a whole — knowing that this is a place that you can build a company if you want to and you can engage with your peers, that people are very open, the exchange of ideas was growing — that changed my mind.
What startup do you find most interesting right now: Too many to choose from.
What you would do if you weren’t in your line of work: I wanted to design cars. So even though I said I wanted to be a patent lawyer, that was like a more practical dream that brings in cash, but the reality was [I studied mechanical engineering] because I thought I would get to design a car one day.
Biggest accomplishment: Getting into undergraduate [at the George Washington University] was a big deal for me. I was the first that I know of, of anybody in my family, to go away to college. My sister went to the university in our hometown, but it was a big deal for me to move away from home and go to a private university.
Who in your life inspires you: My mom went through quite a bit of growing up and where she’s been able to get in her life, having [the success of] me and my sister … hopefully I’m a success … that’s a representation of sort of what she’s been able to accomplish from just pure grit and hard work. And then the fact that she’s still so loving, that’s amazing.
You have a time machine and can travel anywhere in the past or future. Where and when do you go? Far enough in the future where I think, in theory, we wouldn’t be around anymore, because you’ll never get to see that.
Favorite travel locale: This is like the constant battle, right? Is it the mountains? Or is it the beach? And I think it’s my mood, honestly, but it’d be equally split between those two things.
Guilty pleasure TV show: I remember being really into “Veronica Mars,’ and I think I could probably binge watch that again.