A Sit-Down with Laura Smailes Assistant Director at Ventureprise at UNC Charlotte  

As Part of the Heroes of Change Podcast

Jeremy Turner, Founder and Managing Director of EPIC Mission:

Thank you for tuning into this episode of the Heroes of Change podcast from EPIC Mission. This is Jeremy Turner, Founder and Managing Director of EPIC Mission and I’ll be your host here on the podcast. We’re highlighting the trials, victories, and applied wisdom of our community change agents, unsung heroes, and those who empower them to be the change across Appalachia and beyond. We seek to inspire and equip everyday heroes just like you to take on our greatest challenges because together, we are the change.

Today it’s an absolute thrill to welcome, I don’t want to say an old friend because that’s not really cool; all the time friend, someone I’ve known for a year or two, Laura Smailes. Before we get into Laura, I want to read a quick snippet and then we’ll jump into her story. Laura Smailes graduated from Marshall University in 1996 and moved to Columbus, Ohio to pursue a career in broadcasting. After 12 years as a talk show producer for 610 WTVN, she moved to Charlotte, North Carolina to return to academia and get her master’s degree in communication studies. After co-founding a SAROS with two engineers and discovering her passion for entrepreneurship, she is now the assistant director at Ventureprise at UNC Charlotte, a hands-on strategic effort to help startups, early stage companies, and innovation-based entrepreneurship on campus and in the Charlotte community. Awesome stuff, so welcome. 

Laura Smailes, Assistant Director at Ventureprise:

It’s a mouthful, isn’t it? 

Jeremy:

Yeah, I need a drink of water after that. Welcome to the show and thank you for taking time. I know you’re busy, out changing the world, which is exactly why you’re here. 

Laura:

It’s spring break this week, so we’re good.

Jeremy:

Timing’s everything. Everybody’s got a bio these days. You can go on LinkedIn and read about people. All these prepared statements. I like to go beyond the bio so that we can get to know you and what you’re about and I know a little bit of it. Let’s see if we can learn some more. So let’s go beyond the bio. What should we know about you and the work that you’re doing that isn’t listed in your bio?

Laura:

I actually teach what I’ve already done. So when I was getting my master’s, I actually had just defended my thesis and was in the office signing the paperwork and somebody had called saying that they had invested into an innovation that was coming off, some research off of campus, but they needed help in sort of managing projects and things of that nature. And I had never really heard the term “project manager” before. But the girl that answered the phone said, “Hey, I know that you’re looking for a job after you graduate, so if you’re interested” So she put me in touch with this gentleman, went and interviewed with them and ended up, he just said, “You’re on board. I have four or five projects.” He was an entrepreneur, a tinkerer, if you may and had invested in some things and just needed help in organizing them. And I ended up meeting two engineers from campus here. They had just graduated from their undergrad and had a social entrepreneurship endeavor. Basically, they had a machine you put out into the water with the ocean waves actually, that energy got sucked in, turned to mechanical energy and it cleaned ocean water and made drinking water. That’s a very basic way of saying it. They would probably kill me if they heard me saying that, but in the most basic form, that’s what it is. 

Jeremy:

Well, most of us aren’t engineers.

Laura:

Exactly. That was where I came in. That was my job. But worked on that for about four years. So I co-founded that company, SAROS, the salination with them and worked on it for four years, handed it over, went through programming here and then after about four years, handed it over to a couple of labs on the West Coast. And at that time there was a position available here on campus to work with students, researchers, and also community members on learning about entrepreneurship and sort of some of that foundational information. And so it was a natural fit that I came here and I actually teach what I went through. So I can talk to them on a level, whereas “I know where you’re struggling. I know what this is like and here’s some things to try.” That’s what I like doing.

Jeremy:

Well, and it shows, I mean, like I said, we’ve known each other for awhile and so, you know, feeling the passion that you have for this is awesome. I love it. I love seeing people I grew up with in their niche. That’s cool. 

Laura:

Very ironic that we both sort of turned around and came into that. But yeah, I can literally say I fell into it. I was walking into an office and there was a guy calling on the phone, so I would never have heard of entrepreneurship before that.

Jeremy:

Let’s talk about that for a minute because you and I both grew up here in Huntington and went to school together and talk about the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Huntington or how people might have or might not have been exposed to this.

Laura:

Yeah, I really like, I always find it crazy that I never really understood it or heard of it before. I even, you know, even in my 20s and 30s when I was in Columbus just didn’t really hear a lot of that, a lot of that buzz or anything. And then once I moved here and was on campus, I heard a little bit about it and started getting introduced to it. And then it wasn’t until Fred, the gentlemen that invested into us had called, but I literally had to start reading and doing research, thank goodness for Google and understanding very basic questions because I was having these conversations and really didn’t know what direction to go into and took it from a very basic form and then started going to all these different events here in Charlotte. And I understand from talking with you and then being around, you know, when I go visit, I’m in Huntington probably a quarter. I hear more of that now. I think it’s more a part of the conversation. You know, you use that, those entrepreneurship and change makers and things like that. I think there’s buzzwords that are becoming more common because even when I talk to students here, I don’t necessarily approach it as entrepreneurship. I ask them if they want to be a changemaker, if they’ve identified a problem in their community on campus in their dorm that they want to make it, you know, they want to have a problem, they want to solve a problem and they say, “Oh yeah,” I said, “That’s entrepreneurial thinking.” Like, “Let’s figure out, look outside the box and let’s look at that.” And that’s what I’m seeing a little bit more. I have nephews that are in their early 20s in Huntington and I hear them use that word a little bit more. So I think it’s starting to grow and I’m very supportive of that. That’s something that excites me. But I feel like you have to know your audience and use different terminology because entrepreneurship sometimes is very scary. People feel you have to have everything figured out. You have to have all this money, you have to have connections. And it’s really about finding a problem, finding a solution, and then figuring out how to approach it.

Jeremy:

Absolutely. You know we see things from Silicon Valley and these billion dollar acquisitions or these monster seed rounds and there’s all this terminology, series a whatever, that most of us on the ground, most average people have no idea what they’re talking about. And so you know, you grew up in a place like Huntington that is, yes, we’re working on building the ecosystem and developing remediation and getting people trained up. However you start introducing these terms and tell people about entrepreneurship. It’s just a funky French word and you know, it’s frightening. It’s overwhelming. It’s intimidating, right?

Laura:

Yes. And I feel like that’s, I mean, even here I’ll have people tell me, because we work with the university, we’re mainly with university, but I also do community programs. I have, I’m you know, I do a lot of volunteer work for a couple of organizations, but then I also go out and we actually have a couple of community programs that we teach through here. But I will go out and talk to people and they’ll say, “Oh, well I’m getting ready for a VC.” No. You can’t be. You’re not, have you even looked at, you know, friends and family, have you looked at non-diluted funding through grants and you know, depending on what they’re doing and you know, VC is so far down the line and so few people, it’s not easy to obtain that and very few people get it. It’s a term that I think is so usefully used just for funding in general. And I, there’s so much money in the non-dilutive route in terms of grants and other programs that should be first tried. And that’s, that’s a job of, you know, small, you know, we work very closely with a small SBTDC here on campus. You know, and I think they’re around, you know, it’s a national program but they’re able to show. But I always tell people “Go try all you can, you don’t want to give away your company before you know what’s what is actually going to do.”

Jeremy:

Take a minute and explain what non-diluted means in case there’s someone on here that doesn’t know that.

Laura:

Basically non-dilutive means you’re not giving away anything of your company. So when people say, “I want somebody to invest in my company” and I always say, “Okay, well how much are you valuing your company?” And they say, “Oh, okay, I’ll say a hundred thousand dollars.” Say, “Okay, well how much are you asking for?” They’ll say “$50,000” so you’re giving away 50% of your company because if somebody puts in half of what you need, you’re giving them 50% control. So you’re giving up all the rights to make all the decisions you now have somebody else to answer to, which is fine in some cases. But you don’t want to give it up before, you know, to value your company takes a lot of work and you just, you can’t start them, you know, naming off things. The biggest thing to do is a million. I’m worth a million. All I’ll value at a million. And that’s just not an easy thing to do. And even if you give away 10%, you’re still giving away where you have to talk with somebody. And so I try to have people look at different programs within government and things of that nature. And even, you know, female-led businesses, minority-led businesses, there’s different opportunities for them to get funding. And non-dilutive means they’re just giving it to you. You’re going through a grant program, they’re giving you that money because they see something in you and they see something in your idea that they say, “Okay, this is worth giving you $20,000 for, I want to see what you can do with this money to watch it.” And then that’s where you thrive. That’s where you sort of go, “Hey, this is what I’m going to do with this money.” And I feel when the government has those funds and they’re giving them away and you know, through different means that you should try and take advantage of those in any way you can. It’s not easy to navigate, but there’s also resources to use to help you navigate through that system. And that’s what I try to get people doing in that first step. And again, it’s not easy and sometimes it’s a full time job looking for funding opportunities, but it’s also easier than giving away your company before you know how much it’s really valued.

Jeremy:

Yeah. That whole evaluation piece is so crucial. And, I mean, all you have to do is watch one episode of Shark Tank and just get absolutely filleted when they throw out some fictional valuation, right? They’ll say, “What have you done to make it a million dollars? Well, what are your sales?” 

Laura:

“And that’s where I’m worth, two million.” Not exactly. And so that’s why we give out money. Like we have different grants through the National Science Foundation through NC Idea, which is a program, a foundation here in North Carolina. But we’re able to give out small microgrants to companies that have gone through our program, but it offers them, you know, that time, like we give $2,000 out you know, two to five or six different teams every summer. But then we walk them through like pilots because then they collect data. Then they’re able to show, “Okay, here’s through my pilot, here’s the data that I collected. Here’s how that’s validated. Now I’d like $10 or $50,000 to actually go out, and make these customers.” Those are proven track records. So I work under the assumption of collecting as much data, you know, go out, build your MVP. If you have an idea, go out and build it. Or if it’s a business model, if it’s, whatever your idea is, whether it’s starting, you know, some type of company, some type of, if you’re buying a you know, a Dunkin’ Donuts or anything like that, like go ahead and do show the numbers and go up and go out and test the waters and say, “Okay, this is what this says.” You can plan, plan and plan, but there’s never going to be that opportune time. You just sort of have to take the leap, I believe.

Jeremy:

Yeah. Entrepreneurship is oftentimes defined or described as the proverbial ‘building the plane while you’re flying it’ concept. And, you know, having worked in this space for awhile, I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of examples of that on both sides. People who may have had really good ideas or the ideas are a dime a dozen. But what seemed like the basis of a fair idea, but they were trying to make sure every single thing was perfect before they went forward. And you’ve probably seen the extreme other end of someone who’s just just winging it completely.

Laura:

And that’s what we try to do. So I, yeah, I do. I try to get people to get that balance because when I had my startup, my engineers, they wouldn’t have tested anything, if possible, or they would have tested behind closed doors without me knowing. You know, that was, they had everything they had, you know, it was black and white. There was no in between. And if something completely, you know, they would come back from each test going, “Oh, you know,” and I’d say, “Tell me one good thing that you found out during that,” and there’d been two or three. And I’m like, “That’s what we concentrate on that we build off of that because we wouldn’t have known this otherwise.” On the other hand, I have several people come up to me and say, “Oh my gosh, I’m getting ready to launch a website. I’m ready to launch an app.” Be like, “Oh great, who are you marketing to?” “Oh, it was just something that I know that’s a problem.” Like, “Well hold on here, everybody wants this,” and that’s the basis of the programming that I teach. It’s called ‘Customer Discovery’ and it’s done through the business model canvas, but basically is what we do is we make people get outside of the research lab, get outside of their office building, get outside and start talking to people not selling their product, not selling their innovation, not selling their business model, but going out and talking to potential markets and saying, “What problems are you experiencing? How are you currently solving them? What’s wrong with those? What’s wrong with those solutions? What would you like to see changed?” And during that time, you’re building on assumptions that you’ve made in either validating or invalidating. And then building from there it’s the most difficult process to go through. I will, I went through it. So that’s what I tell everybody. I remember going to people and saying, “What do you mean water isn’t going to solve everything? We have a trillion dollar market.” And we thought we had everything solved. And it’s like, “No, not really,” because one of our problems was a lot of people didn’t identify themselves as having water issues because they were used to walking, getting up every morning, walking six miles to the closest stream and getting their clean water there. That was part of their culture. So when you ask them, “Hey, don’t you want another solution for clean water?” They’d say, “Well, we have one.” And I’d say, we’d say, “But look, if you can go six feet down into the ocean, you’d have clean water.” And they’re like, “No.” They didn’t see it as a problem. And we started to go, “Oh my gosh, we have to design and we’re looking at different target markets.” We need to find the people that have said, which ended up being Puerto Rico for us was “We’re tired of the solutions that we have now. We’re in a desperate need. We’re looking for something and we have money to do this.” And that’s where you say, “Okay, here’s where my solution works.” And you start working down that path, but it’s the most complicated because you don’t want to hear, we always say, “It’s calling your baby ugly.” You don’t ever want to hear that your baby’s ugly, your ideas. But I believe that, that information and when people are giving you, I don’t call it negative, but some people would say negative feedback. I believe that’s the most, that’s where you learn the best because then you’re going, “I see how other people see this” and so that’s a big thing that I love to do is I’m like, “I’m so excited by your passion, but let’s figure out if this is going to work.” And it’s the same as if you start, you know, if you have, you know, if you buy again like a Dunkin’ Donuts or a McDonald’s or something and you’re trying to put the chain up there, you need to figure out if, you know, you need to do your research and talk to people, is this going to work here? Is this what people want? And you just need to make sure before you take that, because it is such a risk, but it takes a definite passion that I love to see. And people like, that’s where I get really excited is when people say, “I really want to do this” because you rarely hear people say, “I’m going to become a millionaire.” They really do it because they’re like, “I just really liked doing this kind of stuff and I want to bring this to this area.” And I think that’s, you know, from my discussions with you, I think that’s what I read. I think that’s happening in Huntington and that thrills me to no end. You know, there’s definitely a, there’s definitely a needle moving.

Jeremy:

We have much more work to do and I want to get it. I want to get to, I’ve got a couple of questions I want to ask you here in a minute. One first though. So you know, you and I hadn’t seen one another for some time and then we reconnected during your time with SAROS. So tell me a little bit about what it was like to be a woman from West Virginia working in STEM-based entrepreneurship.

Laura:

It made me realize that I wanted to advocate, which I continue to still do, advocate for women in STEM. Actually it was very difficult and I, my biggest message to people is, first off, we actually worked with a company here that’s in our building, came through our program. She’s actually collaborating with one of our computing and informatics professors. But she does STEM-based education and tutoring, basically activities for STEM girls between the ages of eight and 13, because that’s where they lose interest. And I have that passion with her and I love what she’s done because I don’t believe females are encouraged at that age to go through math and science. And anytime I find that I do whatever I can to encourage it. And even if you look at our classes here, we have one of the strongest engineering departments in North Carolina and there’s very few females. There’s a few that have gone through our program and it’s definitely there, there are standouts and it’s just something that I’m very passionate about getting more recognition for. I believe that if you have that more in your primary education you know, in those crucial, you know, third grade, fourth grade, fifth grade you get some of that encouragement and have some of those activities. And I think the biggest thing is showing how, what you’re learning in these, you know, science and math classes can actually translate into a potential career. I think that that’s where there’s a lot of potential, but I also wanted to be an advocate for, I was communication studies. That’s what I got my masters in actually. I was political science communication studies, you know, when I was at Marshall. So I’m very heavy on the communications, but I was able to insert myself into a STEM field because it takes so many different people to be a part of a startup or a part of a team that’s doing something new and innovative. And me being on the outside of engineering and having two engineers, I learned their world and they learned mine. We met halfway, but we stayed in our lanes as well. And I was able to teach people about engineering in a way that wasn’t extreme as my engineers, Justin and Chris did. And it took awhile for us to, for them to allow me to talk, you know, the way that I felt that I could, but I believe I would have loved to have taken some of those classes just to understand some of, you know, some of the way things work because I talk now to any of my students that come through and it’s a lot of computing and informatics talking, you know, data analytics and code. It’s amazing. But I do have to say at times, “Okay, let’s walk it back a minute,” but I will champion them in whatever way. And I will say the females that come through is definitely one where I really take a concerted effort to encourage and to make sure that they’re staying engaged because they have a, you know, they have a lot on their plate and there’s a lot of expected of them. And so I want to be there to say,”Listen, you can do both of these things at the same time. It’s not impossible. Let’s work and see how we can do this.” Because there’s just not enough. And even if you look, I’m part of a, I volunteer for an organization here in Charlotte that focuses on female-led companies because there’s not enough and there’s not enough funding. If you look at the disparity in funding for female-led companies, if you look at the disparity at resources, so it’s, it’s sort of really highlighting that and showcasing “Here’s what you can do and here’s what enables you and here’s what can empower you.” And I feel one of my biggest jobs is to continue that. But then to also really launch that in their collegiate league years. That’s when I see them. That’s when I have them. So you don’t necessarily have to go and start a company. I want you to be able, I want to sort of give you that entrepreneurial thinking, those tools to go out and be part of. If you’re working at a corporation and you figure out a faster, better way to do something, I want you to, I want to enable you with those characteristics to be able to say, “Hey, look at what I’ve been able to do” and present it to those in charge. If you’re doing something on the side, I want you to feel empowered to be able to say, “Hey, this is what I’d like to see done” and give you that tools to think outside the box.

I don’t feel that every entree, you know, every person that I touch has to start a business. In fact, the statistics are against you. I want you to be empowered, to make, be the change, to be a changemaker. And again, that’s what I said. Like a lot of our competitions I have reworded where I say I, you know, I want to empower you to make a change. I want you to be a changemaker, let’s do some change making on campus. And that seems to resonate a lot more because you see a lot of, you know, high school and collegiate kids wanting to make a difference and wanting to really make a footprint. And if you enable them to think outside the box and think about what they’re trying to do and who they’re targeting, it could, I mean, they could, they could make such major, amazing strides. And so I want to do whatever I can to encourage that.

Jeremy:

Love it. Yeah, I definitely agree that, you know, we need more women in the STEM fields. We need more women in entrepreneurship. And, you know, there’s an opportunity to really combine both of those disciplines and do amazing things. You know, we both get to work with young people and it’s an amazing thing. For me  it’s partly about being who I needed because, you and I, we didn’t have these types of role models growing up and we couldn’t look out and say, “Okay, which one of these fine entrepreneurs would we like to speak with today?” We had the fear, but I guess we just weren’t exposed to them. So you touched on this a minute ago, young people, they want to go do something big. They want to make it, they want to make a difference. Some sort of legacy project almost, maybe they wouldn’t use that wording if they want to be a part of businesses and associated with businesses that do more than simply make money. Right? So how do we balance, you know, sometimes we place these expectations on young people to go out and change the world and, you know, we see these weaknesses and it’s the next Facebook, it’s the next Twitter versus, you know, people starting small, homegrown, local businesses. Can you talk about, do you know what I’m, where I’m going?

Laura:

I, well I actually have that into my speech when I talk to students because again, I think I mentioned the fact is the stats are against them and actually succeeding in watching, you know, the successful on their first or second, you know, on their first try, which is what they’re doing here. My goal is to get them and I say, “Even if you want to start a student organization on campus, if you want to start a nonprofit, if you want to start a program, the fundamentals are the same in starting, you know, and start in launching an LLC.” But you’re trying to figure out what problem you’re trying to solve. Who are you solving it for, what’s currently being done, why are you different? And it’s all the same no matter what you do because all of that, all that foundational information helps with your marketing and your resources and everything. So we almost try to tell the story of everything that you learn through entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial thinking helps you no matter what the skills of interviewing somebody about what, you know, when we tell these students who are doing their PhD or on the PhD track and are doing research in labs, when I, when we forced them out of the lab, they’re going to talk to people. It’s transformational in what they learn because they’ve never gone out and talked to 30 different people about what problems are experiencing. They’ve never had to take feedback on what they’re doing and what they’re proposing and what they’re researching. So I think it’s not only giving them an empowerment to be their own boss, be the change and all of this, but it’s also empowering them to have this mentality to go forward and with whatever they want, whether it be a corporate job, whether it be a stay-at-home mother and trying to organize things, whether it’s, you know, starting their own business, whether it’s starting a nonprofit, I think all the tools and being able to multitask, think outside the box, keeps you engaged, keeps you creative, and really gives you the tools that you need to go forward. And that’s what we try to teach. You know, I, because I’ll talk to students and they don’t understand it first and then I’ll say, “But what about this? Have you talked to,” you know, somebody said, “Oh I have.” My worst thing is when somebody comes in and says, “I’m going to do this because there’s no competition.” Like “What do you mean there’s no competition?” “Oh, nobody else is doing this.” I’m like, “One, I’m going to really not believe that.” And to figure out if that’s really the case, then there’s a reason why somebody hasn’t done it. And then they go, “Oh,” I’m like “Go talk to so and so who has a company similar to that?” But why aren’t they, why are they going down this other track that you’re convinced you need to go down? They’ll come back to me two days later and say, “Oh, you can’t because of, you know, regulations on this and this and this. You can’t do that.” And I’m like, “Are you not glad that you did?” And they’re like, “I’m so glad I didn’t go and spend six weeks building this for that market or those types of people. And it wasn’t going to be, you know, wasn’t gonna be applicable.” And so I think it helps them think ahead whether it’s for their PhD, whether, you know, we, I’ve had a lot of students go through that just do it for their PhD to assist them in the research. Because when you’re validating research on campus, which is, you know, it goes back to the STEM thing and all of that, there’s really cool innovations.

Some of these things that are, that are coming out is just absolutely, I would never have thought of like, it just blows my mind. But when you ask them what it’s there for, they’re just like, “Eh, I just felt like it was really cool.” It’s not solving a problem. So you sort of get them to go out and talk to people and they’re like, “Oh, but if I did a few different things,” then it would definitely be able to solve this problem. And that’s what I find amazing because then you’re empowering somebody to really make a difference in a community. And if we’re able to have them think just a little bit differently and outside the box and that’s what helps them. I’m all for whatever you can do.

Jeremy:

You know, growing up, I remember and I still hear this far more often than I’d like, “Failure is not an option in school.” And as athletes, we vote all the time when at all costs. Failure is not an option. And unfortunately I think that it’s paralyzed many people because they’re afraid to start anything new or anything that’s going to challenge the status quo because they might fail. Talk about failure and how that figures into…

Laura:

I want you to fail. That’s what I tell people. I want, like, I encourage it, like that’s another thing. Like they’ll come to me and say, “Man, this isn’t working.” And I’m like, “That’s so great. “And they’re like, “What do you mean?” That’s great. I’m like, “Now you can mark that part off and go down this route.” And they’re like, “Oh,” I honestly tell people if you, you know, when you go back to the funding conversation, you’re talking to an angel investor, you’re talking to a VC. Those of us that have had businesses that have gotten to that level, VCs want to hear what you failed because if you have it, they’re like, “Whoa, something’s wrong here” because you learned so much from your failures. We did so many different things. You know, you can say that we failed in my startup because we handed it off to a lab and I would never tell you that we failed because we learned so much in what was needed. And we did advance wave technology. So I will never walk away saying, “Okay, so where we did technically fail?” is that we did not watch a revenue driven business, but what we did, yeah. But we’ve launched a whole new technology in how a wave of technology was approached. So I always say “There’s always a silver lining,” but if you’re not trying something, you’re not going forward and you’re not learning anything. If everything is great, like we always say, because everybody, when we have our classes, it’s a six week cohort. You have to do five to seven interviews a week and you’re supposed to come back each week and you do a presentation on what you’ve learned for the first two weeks. We always hear a ton of people will come in and they’ll say, “Oh I talked to four different people. They love it.” Or like “What do they love?” “They love what I’m doing.” I’m like, we’re like “First off, why do they love, you know, you’re not supposed to be talking about your technology or your, you know, what you’re doing. But two, you said this for two weeks. So you’re telling me that you’ve talked to 11 people and every single person loves what you’re doing?” Yeah. You’re asking the wrong questions and you’re talking to the wrong people because you need to get people in front of you and you need to get in front of people that are not going to love you. They, you need to learn what’s wrong. And, and I say, “I know it’s the hardest thing to do.” I remember, you know, going into interviews when I was going through the program and going, “They’re going to nail me. They’re going to just rip me apart” and just being this, having a sick feeling. But man, I walked out of there and then when I did my next five interviews, I had all the answers that they had already got me through. So I will encourage and my students laugh at me because whenever I celebrate failures and failure stories, if you say, “I hate that word,” but I celebrate that more than I celebrate when somebody comes in and says, “Yeah, yeah, I did this and it was great.” I’m like, Oh, that’s good, but what did it, you know, what, what did they not like? And I will forever be known as that. But I believe, especially when you’re starting out, especially when it’s your, you know, when you’re testing the waters, fail as much as you can on your assumptions because then it just means that you’re going to, you’re getting closer to the answer.

Jeremy:

You know, we need to really reframe what is failure, right? Failure has all these negative feelings associated with it. Failure is you know, it’s an act. It’s not a person. And you know, as we tend to internalize failure because that’s what we’ve been taught, right? You don’t fail. You, you push forward whatever it takes.

Laura:

Yeah. I don’t think I got a B until I was in high, like my senior year of high school, scared to death. 

Jeremy:

I might fail. But, you know, obviously studies, you know, it’s really, it’s the students that are running the world absolutely everything perfect all the time. You know, there’s some companies that they actually reward the biggest failures because they understand the value of learning. We have the whole lean startup movement. That’s, that’s been going on for years now. You know, fail fast, fail cheap, fail forward for all the reasons that you just spoke about. You know, fail, fail fast so you can learn quickly, fail cheap on your own money or someone else’s, a little bit of money before you get a lot of money and fail forward by taking those learnings and applying them and you know, pivoting or iterating and moving forward with your venture. Right? 

Laura:

Oh absolutely. And that, I mean, I feel like it’s, it’s like I just saw on LinkedIn not too long ago, but it was Michael Jordan like was saying like where he’s quoted, who knows, I’m not validating this so it can go as far as whatever. But I like the message in general, but he was like, I had, I think there was 30 or six 30 or 40 some shot he had like the last second shot clutch shot that was going to win. He missed that. He missed so many layups, fail shots, but he did all of that because then he learned how to do all of this. And that’s the message that we try to, I try to tell students, don’t look the Bill Gates, the Steve Jobs, amazing stories, not the norm. Like you do not mold yourself because, but if you talk to them, if you would read, you would see how many times they failed prior to that. But you only hear about their success stories. And I love like the Steve Jobs autobiography was I want to say 600 some pages and I read every single one because it detailed that and it showed how, you know, all, all these different steps that he had taken, how many times that he was knocked down. And I think you need, we need to tell more of those. They’re hearing, but they’re not really given as much as we’re given the success stories. And those are unique. Those are called unicorns for a reason. They, when you have these really, you know, billion dollar companies, the unicorn companies, they’re called unicorns for a reason. There’s not, you know, there’s not a lot. And I think that that’s what’s missing in telling the stories with students and children. You know, students and young professionals these days is, I’m not saying that you do something to fail. I’m saying try as much as you can and if you fail, pick yourself up. And that’s the best way to learn.

Jeremy:

Yeah, that’s really the purpose behind this podcast is to get real and share real stories about people so that we can get past all the polished, fluffy nonsense that entrepreneurship is easy. All you can do is have a good idea. Just work hard, put your idea out there and you know, investors will be beating on your door. We both know that that’s absolutely not real. And it’s doing, I think would be entrepreneurs, even current entrepreneurs, an amazing disservice as we’re perpetuating something that is absolutely false.

Laura:

One of the coolest things that I’ve seen, so we have three cohorts a year. We have summer, spring, and fall. And we do, in those cohorts, we have a university cohort and a community cohort. And in the community cohort, we have usually eight to 10 people in the Charlotte Western North Carolina area that come down every Wednesday night. And we have this class and two springs, not this spring, but last spring we had, I want to say we did have a big class, the, it was probably 13, but out of those 13 teams, companies, we have seven that are doing that are getting ready to start revenue. Like it’s a long road, but they’re there. They’re doing, they’re making their milestones and doing pretty well. But the amazing thing is those five that didn’t succeed that folded shop, those people ended up teaming up with co-found founders from all the other ones. So you have these teams that met in this cohort, they were starting their own businesses and realize, “Okay, I really don’t have something here, but hey, I really liked what you were doing and I have those technical skills that you didn’t have.” And so now, so that’s like, those stories make me so excited because that’s saying, “You know, what I’m doing wasn’t going to go forward. I’m going to call a shot and I’m going to go this route” and I can’t tell you how many, I probably made 60 phone calls when we decided that we were closing up shop on SAROS and that we were handing it off. I can, out of those 60 phone calls, 60 different people said “Congratulations on calling it and realizing that” like “Kudos to you for not continuing, like trying to put a, you know, a square peg in a round hole and trying to make that fit right now because you’re probably 15 years away from revenue with wave technology.So kudos.” Like, and so it was, it was the most bizarre thing for me at the time. But when I looked back on it, I was like, “They were encouraging the quote unquote ‘failure.’” Like they were just like, “Great.” You know, that’s the, one of the best things you can do in being an entrepreneur is saying, “You know what? I don’t, I, I’ve not really this route. Is it working right now?” So we need to figure out and pivot and ‘pivot’ is the favorite word of ours. And it’s a word that uses entrepreneurship all the time and embraces it. Do it.

Jeremy:

Yeah. Having also been, I was in Charlotte for I guess almost 20 years and saw quite a lot of growth there. You know, when I first got to Charlotte, there was still a lot of pasture land areas that are now concrete. So I was able to see a lot of growth as have you down there thinking about what you’ve seen and experienced and lived and witnessed in Charlotte in the entrepreneurial system. And just in general, anything that you would say you know, “Here’s Appalachia or you know, Huntington or West Virginia and what can, here’s some things I would suggest that you pay attention to or maybe some adjustments you make or some words, words of wisdom.”

Laura:

Oh wow. That’s, oh, I can tell you everything. I don’t know if this is where you’re going, but I’ve noticed in nomad, in whatever route, whatever startup, it could be a startup that’s, you know, doing a social media platform. It could be a startup that is starting you know, some type of a boutique business. The catch all phrase is ‘data analytics.’ Like get the data, figure out how to do it. And we actually just put a data science school in, but I think understanding and embracing what’s like, don’t necessarily try to catch up. Maybe look ahead at trends and what’s happening. Don’t necessarily say, “Oh, this is what’s happening here right now,” but look ahead and try to work for those goals. I think embracing and looking at economic development through entrepreneurship, you need to see, I mean, there’s some companies that are going to be very small and remain very small, but you need to really embrace those companies that are going to bring jobs to the area. Whether that means, you know, having the Amazons and things like that, you know, but having subsets. But anything that’s going to embrace job growth and innovation. I think forcing people to think not only in terms of, you know, retail and things like that, but looking at innovation and what can disrupt industries. I think that that’s something that people maybe don’t get a lot of credit for is when they say, “Oh, what about this?” And it’s like, “No, that’s not possible.” But if you start looking at some of these things and you know, you got, you know, the med school and the nursing school, I’m sure there’s so much sitting around there that could be used and could be really, you know, we try to really work with the health and human services here and we eat a bit. If you look, we lose, Charlotte itself loses out a lot on funding and highlights because of the triad and research triangle. Well, they have three schools that are huge and have, you know, they have the medical schools, they, you know, so even there, that innovation is being embraced. So I think really hanging onto that and celebrating that and trying to focus on what’s ahead and look and really putting an emphasis on deep technology is what’s, you know, what’s going to really feed back into that ecosystem.

Jeremy:

Love it. So what I think I heard you say there and I just want to pull this out is, is a couple of things. One is look ahead, the woman behind I shared this on another podcast, you know, Wayne Gretzky once said, “You skate where the puck is going to be, not where it is right now.” Embracing that piece. But also I heard you say looking at the resources that you have available, the competencies, the what are you, what do you know what’s available to you right now that you can take and apply towards disrupting industries and pushing innovation.

Laura:

Yeah. And it’s not yet, because you’re not going to be able to build different schools and say “Ok, we need to do this now,” but look at, you know, the med school and I believe, did you not just get an engineering school? I’ve been around a bit. There’s a pharmacy that take that part out that I didn’t know that, but I just remember the new building I guess you can say I’ve just seen when I went not, but embracing those like what students are doing there, they’re probably not, they’re just tinkering but actually giving them challenges and having, you know, different corporations and different companies work with students and saying, “Hey, here’s some problems in the industry. Why don’t you do assignments and see how you fix that.” That’s where amazing things come down because it’s no pressure. They’re just like, “Oh, I’m doing this for work or I’m doing this for a grade.”

Jeremy:

Deeper collaboration across colleges within the university. You know, the college of business for example, is working with college with the school of pharmacy or engineering, right?

Laura:

Yes. Co-curricular is really important in curriculum because we’re dealing with co-curricular here because we don’t have a major or minor. But what you, but what I work really hard at daily is making sure that I know what the College of Business is doing, what the College of Engineering is doing, what the College of Computing and Informatics is doing, what Health and Human start. I make sure that I know what’s going on in all the colleges and I make sure that they know what we’re doing and it’s an effort. But again, I don’t want to miss something that’s really great that’s happening over in Arts and Architecture has just busted out for us. We’ve had three teams go to the Nationals and one we just nominated for an award here and there, there are finalists for it. So out of the blue, you know, Arts and Architecture is coming up with all these different sustainable solutions and celebrate that, embrace it. But it’s there. We knew about it and we said “We pushed them because people need pushing.” It’s not like you could just say, “Oh hey, you have this, you know about it now. So if you have any questions, let me know, but it’s due in three weeks.” I send multiple emails, like they laugh at me, how much I check in with everybody. But in the end it helps them because they’re bombarded by everything else. If I can help, like get them to enter one more competition or do one more solution for something, I’m going to try my hardest. But you have to push them. You can’t just say, “Oh, let me know if you would like to do this.” They’re not, nobody’s self-identifies as an innovator, as an entrepreneur. They need to be, you know, sort of said, “Hey, this is really cool. You know, what this could be used for?” and sort of then they, then that comes out. But it’s very few that will come to us and say, “I’m an entrepreneur and I want to make it work. “You have those, but it’s not a time.

Jeremy:

Yeah, I’ve noticed that as well that yeah, labels. I am a fill in the blank. The labels can be pretty limiting. And I think too often, you know, maybe we don’t see ourselves as innovators, entrepreneurs and it’s something that I’ve seen quite a lot here in Appalachia is that people that they are tinkerers or fixers are problem-solvers. They don’t identify as entrepreneurs or innovators because that’s what people do elsewhere. Right? 

Laura:

Absolutely. And if you can grasp hold of that, so if you’re, you know, where we normally see a lot of stuff is when a teacher embraces it and says, “Hey class, we’re going to do some projects. Here’s some problems that we’ve identified and some of the corporations here, what would you think? And that’s for your grade,” for this, you know, like you’re working on this project-based experiential learning opportunities that are based on because you’re giving them, because it’s hard you know, UNC Charlotte, you know, it’s hard for them to balance, so you don’t want to put all this extra work on them. So you’re sort of trying to say, “Ok, you’re doing this here. I’m just going to celebrate it over here as well.” And then they have to take it the extra step because it does take an extra step to be an innovator and entrepreneur. But you know, to, to find those and sort of get the buzz going I think takes some effort and you really have to understand what audience you’re dealing with and how to speak with them and not be so as you know, assuming and saying, “Oh, I’m sure you want to be a billionaire and want to be an entrepreneur. Don’t you love that?” You’re like, you know, “I’m just trying to get my degree.” But when you encourage how their thought process and how they’re doing this, then they go, “Oh, ok. I wouldn’t have thought that.” And I mean, I had a student who I nominated for an award and came back, he came back to me like a week later and said, “I don’t think you know what you did there because I was really down on myself. And the fact that you still believe that I have that in me was enough to get me back into the group.” But it’s just, it’s you just realize that’s not the reason why I nominated him, but I knew that he was going through because when you’re, you know, the startup scene is up and down and flows and I can pretty much identify when somebody is in a downward. So you just try to sorta, you know, poke a little bit and say, “Hey, you know, I still believe in you and I still believe that you have this in you and what would you like to do next?” And people need to be held accountable. People want that saying, “Oh, ok, yeah, check in with me in two weeks. I should have a prototype done.” Cool. All right. And so it is something that you sort of manage, but if that’s what it takes to get somebody to realize something, I’m more than happy to like engage them in that way.

Jeremy:

Yeah. And then so needed. Now accountability hasn’t, as these have this negative feeling associated with it, unfortunately, failure, those sorts of things. Let me switch gears for a second. You know, you still got hopefully a lot of time in front of you to do amazing things and make an impact. But let’s fast forward say 30, 40 years and you’re looking back over the work that you’ve done. What kind of legacy do you want to leave behind and what sort of change are you fighting for in this entrepreneurial space or in the world in general?

Laura:

It’s something that I never realized because when I was first hired for this position, I was hired mainly because I had a lot of access to community and we were going to be doing a little bit more community programs and then as things transpire and when I first got hired it and they told me I was spending more time with students and at first I was very nervous because I was like, “Wait, that’s not what I really do.” But the more that I do it, if I can leave anything behind it’s to show students at this age how they can make a difference and to try everything they can. Back in West Virginia, our goal was we had something set. You didn’t look beyond it. I probably did something very different when I was at Marshall and I was a part of an exchange program and lived in Cambridge and backpack for, you know, six weeks prior and went to school in Cambridge, England and came back. That was unheard of for the most part at that time. But I still had this path and I didn’t stray from it. I worked, you know, I went to school, I worked with the school work and there wasn’t a lot of room to try anything because you didn’t want to fail. So if I can leave anything behind, it’s the thought that yes, you, you need to try whatever you can because the more that you figure out you don’t want to do something, it’s going to put you so much more ahead for when you’re in your mid-20s. So this is the time to try it all. Fail as much as you can and figure out what really makes you passionate. And you don’t have to start a company. You don’t have to, you know, go down this path and be a CEO. But I want to empower you to make those decisions and think outside the box and have the confidence to say, “This is what, you know, I think you should do this as a solution I’ve come up with and this is the way I think it should go.” And if I can especially do that with females, with females and STEM that’s definitely something for them to get more hands-on in technology because there I can say is they’re bad ass when they get in there. And I have this particularly two girls that any time, two females, any time you get them in a room, they will take it over and say, “This is what I’ve designed, this is what I’ve coded and here you go.” And I will celebrate that every single time and it’s not enough. And if I had the time to do it, I would do separate programs. But in the meantime, I support the other programs that are out there.

Jeremy:

Love it, love it. So you know, the name of this podcast is the Heroes of Change. The tagline for my company is “Guiding the Heroes of Change. “You know, you’ve heard me use this phrasing before. When you hear that, “Heroes of Change,” what does that mean to you and why is it so important for everyday people to get up and go be the change?

Laura:

For me, the Heroes of Change are actually the people that are going through it. I’m giving you the tools, but other people are actually making the difference in my opinion, in my eyes. So if I can give people the tools to make those changes that’s who I think the heroes are. The heroes, you know, I see daily that are coming up with these solutions that are in AI and robotics and engine, you know, different engineering facets, mechanical and chemical, you know, all that. So I feel, I know how maybe encourage and enhance and communicate those things to you. But there’s so many people that, you know, don’t give themselves credit because they’re just, you know, they’re going down these paths and stick into it. But I think those are the heroes because what they actually know, the knowledge that they hold, if you can just unleash that and just a little bit of a different creative way those could be definitely the heroes.

Jeremy:

And why do you think it’s so important for everyday people like you and I to get up and go tackle challenges that need to be addressed? 

Laura:

I think because we’ve lived it. I think, you know, you said a couple of times since you hit it right, you nailed it because we didn’t have it. If I can be that person, you know, and I’m not saying anything was wrong with the way that we grew up, it’s just something that we didn’t have at the time. And if I can, if I can be, we can be those people to communicate those messages and show, you know, again, my big thing is I was there, I did it. You’ve been there and done it. And so we’re not just coming into it saying, “Ok, I’ve done all of, you know, I’ve read about all of this so I’m just going to talk to you about it now.” No, we lived it day to day. We grew up in areas, you know, in an area that didn’t have a lot of technology that didn’t have a lot of innovation, didn’t have a lot of entrepreneurship that we were aware of. We go out, we lived in other cities that where we see it and you’re back making a difference, but you’re championing this and whatever I can do to assist that as well. But to bring that difference in highlight that you can’t, you don’t have to go, you don’t necessarily have to go away or you can come back and bring that as well. But we both have lived at home like we’re not necessarily, I think we bring a more truthful aspect maybe than other people that are just saying,” I studied this,” and that’s not saying anything bad against those people. It’s just saying, “I think that’s our unique aspect.”

Jeremy:

Yeah. Entrepreneurship, I mean, you know, there’s much to learn, but it’s something that you do, you know, entrepreneurship. I got two more questions, I don’t want to keep you all day. Any final advice or words of wisdom or encouragement for Heroes of Change out there? People who may have an idea and they’re afraid to move forward with it or maybe they’re working for a company that they recognize some changes need to be made or they’ve launched their first business and it’s not going so well?

Laura:

I say find your tribe and find those resources because if you have an idea, talk to somebody about it, think it through, but really talk to some people and see if there’s a lot to be said. There’s, you know, everybody has ideas, so you want to be different by actually building it or going through with it. So talk to some people about it. And then once you do it, like put something together and then try it out. And, but in doing that, find some like-minded people. Find those people that, you know, there’s always meet up groups. There’s, especially with Google and Google Hangouts and Facebook and you know, all of these resources and I’m sure there’s a ton of things in Huntington, but find people that are similar that you can bounce ideas off of and let them give you feedback and, and I say, “Be as vocal about it as you can. Don’t just hide it.” Don’t think that, “Oh no, that’s not a good idea,” and you haven’t really talked, talked it through. You had that idea for a reason. You’re experiencing it or you saw, you’ve seen somebody experiencing it. So go for it.

Jeremy:

Great advice. Find your tribe. We all have. So if listeners want to learn more about you and the work that you’re doing there at Ventureprise, how can they do that?

Laura:

I have a LinkedIn page. I do not have Twitter, Insta. I actually do all those through work. But our website is entrepreneurship.uncc.edu. But again my website or my LinkedIn, I’m connected to a lot of things, you know, in terms of things that are going on in the community, on universities. So there’s a lot of information on that page as well.

Jeremy:

Awesome. Love it. And yeah, those of you that are listening, you know, especially are females that are maybe considering you know, something in the STEM world or entrepreneurship or, or better, both, you know, reach out and connect and banter a bit with Laura. I know she’d be happy to talk and encourage you. We need more of you out there. Alright, well, that’s a wrap. I appreciate you being here today, Laura, and we’ll be publishing this episode sooner than later. So that’s all for this episode of the Heroes of Change podcast from EPIC Mission. We hope you’ve been inspired by something you heard today because together, we are the change. Tune in next time as we dig into the story of another hero and learn what they do, how they do it, and most importantly, why they do what they do. Take care, stay encouraged, and we’ll look forward to seeing you next time on the Heroes of Change podcast from EPIC Mission. Take care.