Kansas City is having a moment, said Liam Reilly, and it’s an opportunity he and fellow Back2KC organizers couldn’t pass up — reviving the tech talent recruitment program amid Chiefs glory, downtown baseball district buzz, KC Streetcar expansion, riverfront revitalization, and a World Cup on the horizon.
“We didn’t want to wait another year to tap into that energy,” said Reilly, who also touted the new Kansas City airport terminal, Rx Savings Solutions’ massive exit, and substantial investments from companies like Panasonic and Meta as contributors to Kansas City’s new golden era.
Back2KC — an effort dedicated to rekindling connections between former Kansas Citians and the city’s thriving startup ecosystem — returned Sept. 22, bringing 25 individuals to the city for a day of programming aimed at drawing their attention and moving boxes back to Kansas City.
The 2023 event was supported by 30 local ambassadors — founders, entrepreneurs and community members — who kept the focus on “connecting ideas, talent, capital, and customers,” said Reilly, a principal at the venture capital firm KCRise Fund, which served as the core organizer of Back2KC.
“It’s about ambassadorship, people telling the story,” said Nick Smith, founder of Sailes, a KCRise Fund portfolio company, who participated in a panel conversation during Back2KC. “It’s one thing to have data points and to have some startups that are doing exciting things. But we have to tell the story of what’s unique about Kansas City.”
Back2KC was started by KCRise Fund founder and managing director Darcy Howe, who was inspired by experiencing a similar program, Detroit Homecoming, in 2017. That project sought to revitalize the downtown Detroit area by urging former residents to return to the city, invest in blighted real estate, and help rejuvenate Detroit.
“It sparked the idea for me to bring former Kansas Citians working in tech back to KC to see what progress KC was making in growing technology companies who needed talent,” said Howe.
“Thus in 2018, we started Back2KC to help KCRise Fund portfolio companies and other employers connect to those in tech who might want to re-engage with KC companies in some way,” Howe continued.
Editor’s note: Back2KC later partnered with Startland, the nonprofit parent of Startland News, for its events in 2019 (in-person) and 2020 (virtual) before the program was placed on hiatus because of the ongoing pandemic.
The 2023 Back2KC programming wrapped with a happy hour and entrepreneur/nonprofit showcase hosted by Startland News at Spark Coworking Kansas City.
First-person perspectives on scaling in KC
Kansas City’s days of inspiration are just beginning, said Maria Flynn, an exited biotech founder and advisory board chair of the Digital Health KC initiative. Herself inspired by mentors from Marion Labs during her time at Cerner, Flynn leaned on her 25-year career to talk about the next decades’ potential — particularly in the field of digital health where collisions between experts abound (and cultivate innovation).
“Because we have so many [entrepreneurs focused on digital health] walking around town, we should be a place where when these natural evolutions of companies happen, that you still want to stay in Kansas City,” she said.
Two years ago, Flynn recognized the untapped potential of Kansas City and how the power of proximity could make the region a significant player in the digital health industry.
“I made a list. I came up with 18 companies that I knew that were in digital health,” she recalled. “And I said, ‘Hey, we’ve got a cluster here that nobody knows about.’”
A panel discussion later featured additional insights from entrepreneurs and startup community members — Emily Brown, CEO and co-founder of Free From Market; Nick Smith, CEO and founder of Sailes; Shahzad Zafar, CTO of Rx Savings Solutions; and Bryce Navarro, senior associate at Husch Blackwell — who offered their perspectives on growing businesses from Kansas City.
“Kansas City has all of the things I often tell people that we have in Dallas, just not as much traffic,” Emily Brown. “Great sports teams, great entertainment, great culture, and just a wonderful, vibrant environment.”
Zafar emphasized the importance of business leaders helping each other.
“A support system I think matters a lot,” he said. “If you can find that local support group of companies that want to help another local company to help the ecosystem grow.”
Nick Smith highlighted the need to break free from regional stereotypes.
“We belong at the table,” he said. “I wish I would have approached it that way, even sooner, because I hate being put in a Midwest box.”
The panel also delved into the necessary characteristics a local startup must possess to thrive in the Kansas City community; a key trait: persistence.
“It’s about the hustle. You got to hustle,” said Zafar. “Hiring the right people is so important, and making sure that they understand what they’re a part of, and hopefully be part of that winning at the end.”
Witnesses to a new Kansas City
Back2KC 2023 left attendees inspired and motivated to contribute to the growth and success of Kansas City’s vibrant startup ecosystem, said Clarence Tan and Edna Martinson, co-founders of Boddle, a gamified math platform for K-6 students.
“It was a great event that created a welcoming space for people to connect and learn more about what’s happening in the city and the things that make KC a great place to live, work, and play,” said Martinson. “As well as the job opportunities and talent networks available for companies looking to grow their teams here.”
The couple — whose company was named one of Startland News’ Kansas City Startups to Watch in 2020 before relocating to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to pursue additional funding — highlighted the value of building a business in Kansas City: a place where innovation and iteration go hand-in-hand, Martinson said.
For Boddle, it was a great place to pilot their technology, she added.
“In Kansas City, we’ve talked to a teacher and friend who had 25-plus students in her class, all on different learning levels. It was really hard for her to make sure all the kids are up to grade level and moving on to the next class,” said Martinson. “So, we were thinking, ‘How can we support teachers to give students the tools that they need, and really engage with them?’”
The results were promising, with a significant increase in registered students jumping from 500 to 50,000 in the first year alone. The app recently reported 5 million registered students in 2023.
“We started from classrooms in Kansas City to nationwide now,” said Martinson.
Martinson and Tan still make regular trips to Kansas City because of strong family ties and their enthusiasm for witnessing the city’s ongoing projects.
“It’s always so exciting to visit and see all the new developments happening around the KC metro area,” Martinson said.