When you think about tech hubs, do you think of the Midwest? Ten years ago, most people didn’t. And right now, many people still think of Silicon Valley, New York City, Boston, maybe even Austin now as a place to go for tech.
But that’s changing as new cities in the heartland emerge as growing tech hubs. Cities like Columbus, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee and Indianapolis are all rapidly growing as startups continue to thrive, investors continue to fund, and talent continues to choose the Midwest for living, working, and finding meaningful careers.
So what’s driving this growth?
There are many factors that contribute to the rise of a startup ecosystem: access to capital, strong tech talent, support systems for founders, etc. Another huge factor is cost of living. Many tech workers are choosing affordable, sustainable lifestyles in the Midwest over the high cost of living on the coasts. The Midwest churns out 25% of the country’s computer science grads, and many are staying in the region (or boomeranging back to the Midwest) to pursue meaningful careers — without breaking the bank.
But perhaps one of the biggest factors contributing to the growth of Midwest startup ecosystems are the fiercely passionate people working hard to make sustainable growth a reality in their communities.
That's why we're so excited to announce the winners of the 2022 Purpose Awards. These are the community builders working hard to connect people, elevate talented folks, make sure diverse groups of people have access to top tech jobs, and more.
Whether they’re leading VC firms or economic development organizations, companies or people, these Midwest leaders are dedicated to their Midwest startup communities and making huge strides in helping it grow.
Top Midwest Tech Community Builders: The Winners of the 2022 Purpose Awards
Alison Todak and Kristina Oberly at Shine & Rise
Shine & Rise is a community organization that helps connect women in tech. Founded in Ann Arbor by Alison Todak and Kristina Oberly, Shine & Rise connects people through shared professional experiences and interests, providing a safe place for people to meet new folks, find resources, and feel a little less alone a male-dominated tech world.
Through in-person and virtual events, book clubs, webinars, mentorship programs and more, Shine & Rise is all about elevating women and other underrepresented groups in tech. Alison and Kristina are focused on the mission and passionate about bringing people together in the Midwest tech community and beyond.
Amanda Lewan at Bamboo
Co-founder and CEO of Bamboo Detroit, Amanda Lewan is an incredible community builder for the Detroit startup ecosystem. Bamboo is a coworking collective with offices in Detroit and Royal Oak, but it’s also a place for entrepreneurs to come together, find resources, collaborate and support one another. Amanda has a talent for connecting people and uses it to invite diverse people into the community.
Amanda also organizes and co-hosts the monthly Startup Detroit Pitch Night, where entrepreneurs can pitch a product, idea, or technology company to the group. Q&A and networking follow the pitches, and it’s a great way to jump into the community, meet new people, and get experience pitching.
Anna Mason and Amira Ouji at Rise of the Rest
Founded by Steve Case (co-founder of AOL and CEO and Chairman of Revolution investment firm), Rise of the Rest is a nationwide platform launched by Revolution in 2014. Rise of the Rest believes that some of the most compelling investment opportunities will likely emerge from startups outside of Silicon Valley, Boston, and New York City. Some of their portfolio companies include Detroit-based StockX, St. Louis-based Summersalt, Kansas City-based Backlot Cars and more. To date, the Rise of the Rest Seed Funds have invested in 180 companies.
Amira Ouji, Director of Portfolio Engagement at Rise of the Rest, is another key player on the team. Amira is responsible for assisting portfolio companies with scalable support solutions, educational opportunities, and strategic input. Her work helps ensure that companies in the middle of the country are successful and set up for sustainable growth.
Anna Mason, a Managing Partner of the fund, has led more than 50 investments and serves on the boards of rising companies in Kentucky, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, and Denver. Anna also leads the strategy for the Rise of the Rest platform and is instrumental in the Rise of the Rest Road Trip. This event takes the ROTR team to emerging cities to meet with people in the tech community, and has garnered national attention. This year, Anna and Amira worked hard to create a virtual tech talent tour and provide access to job opportunities to candidates across the country.
Ara Topouzian of the Michigan Venture Capital Association
Economic development expert, classical Armenian Kanun harp player (and Kresge Artist Fellow), and all-around good human Ara Topouzian makes our list as executive director of the Michigan Venture Capital Association. It’s no secret that Michigan has increased VC funding by the highest margin of any state in the U.S. between 2016 and 2020, and the MVCA is a big reason why.
Venture capital was one of the early missing pieces in Michigan’s quest to rebuild its economy a decade ago from automotive powerhouse to diversified tech-based economy. And the “brain drain” of the Midwest continued despite massive talent pipeline in places like the University of Michigan and Michigan Tech.
The MVCA headed up the grueling efforts of VC firms to bring more capital in from the coasts, grow Midwest-based venture funds in Michigan, and increase opportunities for entrepreneurs who have long wanted to keep their businesses in a state that has a relatively low-cost high-satisfaction quality of life for founders and talent. Now there isn’t a week that goes by that a new VC seems to move to the area or a new fund closes. Things are changing recently in a big way, and you can thank Ara Topouzian and team for that.
Ben Blanquera at TechLife Columbus
Ben Blanquera is the co-founder of TechLife Columbus, a grassroots group whose mission is to foster a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship in Columbus. He's the guy who always knows what’s going on in the community because he’s so involved in building it. Ben and the TechLife Columbus team help bring the community together for events, training, mentoring, and everything in between. The group hosts technical coaching events and networking opportunities, shares tech news, and keeps everyone in the community connected.
As a member of the SXSW Pitch Advisory Board, Ben encourages Columbus startups to pitch their product and ideas to them gain a wider audience or raise money. He also uses his platform on LinkedIn to uplift and celebrate the amazing people in the Columbus tech community. Whether they’re hosting an event or celebrating a promotion, Ben is right there, making sure the community comes together for it.
Chris Berry at OhioX
OhioX is a statewide technology and innovation 501c6 nonprofit organization that represents and connects those committed to growing Ohio’s economy through technology and innovation. OhioX President, Chris Berry, is instrumental in advocating for the Ohio tech community to help foster an environment of innovation and economic opportunity.
Through storytelling, advocacy, networking, events like Ohio Tech Day, and partnerships with members, OhioX continues to grow Ohio into a tech hub.
Connie Loh at Detroit Regional Partnership
Connie Loh is Business Development Manager at the Detroit Regional Partnership, which was founded in 2019 for the express purpose of attracting out-of-state investment and jobs to Detroit. Connie leads the effort to grow partnerships that bring more jobs to the region and aggressively market Detroit as an ideal location for business ventures.
The Detroit Regional Partnership recently announced a deal the nonprofit supported with Yangfeng to bring 675 jobs to Detroit’s Highland Park region for automotive interior parts tooling. Highland Park is one of the hardest hit areas of Detroit’s historic downturn and thus is a strategic location for supporting not just jobs coming to Detroit but jobs coming to one of the areas that needs it most.
Dan Snyder at Lower
Lower co-founder and CEO Dan Snyder is another amazing community builder, growing not only one of the highest-growth startups in Columbus but also the startup and tech community.
As a company, Lower is heavily invested in the Columbus community, partnering with local staples like the Columbus Crew. They bought stadium naming rights to the MLS team’s new social field and launched a long-term partnership with the Crew that focuses on several community-based initiatives. For example, the Mini-Pitch Project is a field development project that will help provide a safe and fun environment for local youth in underserved communities with the opportunity to get outside and play soccer. They also partner with Nationwide Children’s Hospitals Healthy Homes initiative to help revitalize the area around the hospital and Junior Achievers to support financial literacy for youth.
David White at OneColumbus
David White is the Director, Workforce And Talent Solutions at OneColumbus, the economic development organization that has connected the dots for the state record-breaking funding behind Columbus’s growing insurtech and healthtech startups.
JobsOhio is a regional partnership to link companies and jobs between regions of Ohio’s sprawling cities, and OneColumbus is the central Ohio regional effort. David serves as a talent and workforce expert for companies seeking to expand existing operations or to introduce new operations to a community in the Columbus Region. He plays a key role in making sure that companies that come to Ohio (and yes, there’s a lot of them these days!) are super successful. He is amazing at facilitating connections between people and resources.
Wherever you find people connecting cities, businesses, and funding, you’ll find networking geniuses like David and the One Columbus team, whose efforts bring growth to tech and startup ecosystems like nothing else can.
Denise Graves at the Michigan Economic Development Corporation
The Michigan Economic Development Corporation has done a large amount of the work to build the growing entrepreneurial ecosystem in Michigan, from developing and supporting SmartZone incubators to partnering with universities and investors to create and grow programs that make it easier for business owners to found, grow, and keep their startups in Michigan.
Denise Graves is university relations director of the MEDC’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative. Her job is to partner with universities around the state of Michigan to help them develop technology and inventions discovered by university researchers to become commercial technology.
Michigan is known for its large pool of engineering talent and its history of innovation in the life sciences and automotive or advanced manufacturing technologies. Among many of her hard-working colleagues, Denise Graves is the woman behind the curtain, making the connections to keep the flow moving from university research and new business ideas to commercialization and business development.
Diane Bouis at the University of Michigan Office of Technology Transfer
On the quiet north campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor that houses a self-driving car test track, robotics lab, and research facilities, the Office of TechTransfer helps new research discoveries and technologies developed at the University of Michigan reach the commercial light of day. Diane Bouis’s title here is Innovation Manager, but she’s more than that. Part self-described mother hen to the accelerator’s startups, part communications director, and networker extraordinaire, Diane is a staple in the Ann Arbor tech community networking scene.
One of the underappreciated roles of startup support professionals is that of connector. Without the connections made by people like Diane, founders wouldn’t meet, technology wouldn’t reach the commercialization stage, and funding wouldn’t reach the right entrepreneurs. If you need to know someone in the Ann Arbor tech community or the larger Michigan life sciences tech community in particular, Diane is the connector you want to know. She’s friendly. It’s not hard to meet her at A2NewTech startup pitch nights, University of Michigan tech events, and many more.
Dug Song at Duo Security and the Ann Arbor Entrepreneurs Fund
The Ann Arbor Entrepreneurs Fund was started by cybersecurity founder Dug Song after his startup Duo Security revolutionized two-factor authentication and was acquired by Cisco for $2.35 billion in 2016. Since then Dug Song has been a focused community partner of the city of Ann Arbor where the startup was founded, creating charitable funds, helping get a skate park built for city youth, and setting up organizations that encourage other founders to give back to equalize opportunity for new founders and talent.
“He built his software right,” “Dug Song really cares about his people,” and “He made sure that his company culture survived acquisition,” are just some of the positive things we have heard people in the tech ecosystem around Ann Arbor have to say about Dug Song, who also—bonus—sparked an entire new cybersecurity and software tech talent ecosystem out of the Duo alum who went on to found such startups as Blumira, AaDya Security, Yottled, and more.
Elio Harmon at 614Startups
If you saw him moderate the Behind the Scenes session at our State of the Columbus Startup Community event last month, you know that Elio Harmon is pumped about the Columbus startup ecosystem. He’s so excited about it, that he’s devoted his free time to building 614Startups, a media company dedicated to elevating the Columbus startup community.
Through startup news, events, and an excellent podcast with local startup and tech leaders, Elio is building a community of people passionate about helping Columbus startups and small businesses go from idea to scale to impact.
Love Elio’s energy as much as we do? Check out his podcasts. Here’s one of our favorites with fellow Purpose Awards winner Dan Snyder.
Jacob Evan Smith at Altimetrik Collider
Jacob Evan Smith is a Detroit-based entrepreneur, tech ecosystem builder, and community organizer. As Altimetrik’s Community Director in Detroit, Jacob runs a community hub for software engineers called Collider. Through webinars, workshops, hackathons, social events and more, Collider helps people in the Detroit tech community connect with one another, grow their skills, and find a place of belonging.
Outside of Collider, Jacob’s community organizing has helped connect and elevate folks across Metro Detroit. He regularly hosts dinners, parties, workshops, and other events aimed at driving positive social change through cross-cultural relationship building (ex: Coalition Series) and productively uncomfortable conversations about race and identity (ex: Productive Discomfort).
Jennifer Szunko of TC NewTech
Speaking of NewTech meetups, TC NewTech is northern Michigan’s connecting space for startups looking for funding. In the southern part of the state, innovation outstrips funding even now. In beautiful Traverse City on Lake Michigan, many investors who have summer or permanent homes here have angel funds looking for a home. Enter TC NewTech, a pitch event for startups that connects northern Michigan’s entrepreneurial scene.
Jennifer Szunko is Executive Director of TC NewTech, and the one who makes things happen for this outpost or “creative coast” of Michigan’s tech startup scene. Jennifer Szunko knows marketing, strategy, startups, and networking, and she knows a whole lot of faces of the Great Lakes tech scene.
JP Nauseef at JobsOhio
JP Nauseef is the President & CEO of JobsOhio, the economic development agency dedicated to boosting innovation and driving job creation and new capital investment in Ohio. Founded in 2011 by Mark Kvamme, JobsOhio is a huge player in the economic development of the buckeye state, and in the last ten years has made quite an impact:
Helped over 2,100 home-grown Ohio companies keep and expand their businesses within the State and helped over 500 companies establish a presence in Ohio.
Create programs to support revitalization.
Make investments that make Ohio more competitive in in-demand fields, including innovation districts, broadband, autonomous mobility, and R&D.
Improve Ohio’s workforce and attract high-quality talent to the state through a variety of talent initiatives.
JobsOhio partners with organizations to create solutions for businesses to come to (and stay in) Ohio, creating over 210,000 jobs and retaining nearly 600,000.
Kathy Henrich at Milwaukee Tech Hub Coalition
Those of us who are keeping tabs on the Midwest tech scene have our eyes on Milwaukee. 2021 has been a huge year of growth for the Milwaukee tech community, and a huge contributing factor is Kathy Henrich and the Milwaukee Tech Hub Coalition. The MKE Tech Hub Coalition is a non-profit organization working to inclusively double tech talent in the Milwaukee region. As a unifying voice for the Milwaukee tech ecosystem, Kathy and the team harness the power of companies, entrepreneurs, educators, community organizations and other area stakeholders. They establish diverse and inclusive talent pipelines, amplify the voices of members, and create meaningful connections to help foster growth and innovation.
Milwaukee was named the number 2 city for launching your career, and many are starting to realize the strength of the city (they are a city of champions after all) as well as its spirit.
Katie Birge at M25
M25 is a VC firm focused on investing in the Midwest. As Associate & Head of Platform, Katie Birge helps elevate Midwest startups and tech companies. It’s something she’s been doing for years, driven by her belief that startups will help the industrial Midwest rise again. The founder of the Bloomington Code School and co-founder of an accelerator, Katie has been instrumental in growing the college town’s tech community.
Prior to joining M25, Katie worked at software companies and startups, and served as executive director of Launch Indy, an entrepreneurship center and coworking space. Katie is also a long-time organizer of the Combine tech conference.
Kelli Jones at Sixty8 Capital
Ninety percent of venture capital goes to people who look alike and live nearby. Sixty8 Capital is trying to change that. Launched in May, 2021, Sixty8 Capital is a seed-stage fund for Black, Brown, women and LGBTQ+ led startups and focuses its efforts between the coasts. Based in Indy and powered by Allos Ventures, the fund is led by Managing Director Kelli Jones, the first-ever Black, female VC in the state of Indiana.
“With this fund, what we’ll get to do is really start to empower people of color, women and other diverse communities by putting capital directly into their hands. Being able to invest directly into companies that are building amazing solutions that just so happen to be founded by diverse people. So that is why we launched Sixty8,” Kelli Jones explained to TechCrunch.
“I think there’s a unique opportunity we can address, and I’m really excited to have an impact both in our community in Indiana, but also around the Midwest and parts of the South as well.”
Kelli is also the founder and CEO of Be Nimble Foundation, a 501(c)(3) social enterprise with the goal of advancing diversity initiatives to create fully inclusive tech ecosystems.
Kit Mueller of RustBuilt & One America Works
Kit Mueller is head of Network at RustBuilt, a startup networking hub based in Pittsburgh’s growing tech community. He’s also Regional Midwest Director of One America Works, a civic partnership to source talent for tech companies looking to expand into emerging hubs.
Pittsburgh has had its own record growth of the tech ecosystem in recent years, and it’s the connectors like Kit Mueller who help fuel the connections that make startups grow. RustBuilt hosts regular events that bring entrepreneurs together, including the annual RustBuilt Conference (RustBuiltConference.com), the Speak Freely speaker series, bi-monthly Startup Ecosystem Tours throughout the region, Startup Drinks Pgh, and more.
Mark Kvamme of Drive Capital
Silicon Valley veteran Mark Kvamme came to Columbus eight years ago to co-found Drive Capital with Sequoia Capital colleague Chris Olsen. Together they built out the VC infrastructure of Ohio, basically from scratch.
The reason Mark Kvamme and Chris Olsen came to such an early-stage ecosystem, however, was that the Midwest was already looking like Silicon Valley did in the early Nineties: the region had a large economy, a very high ratio compared to Silicon Valley of research dollars to investment dollars in new companies, had legacy talent pipelines for engineering and life sciences, and had the companies that needed capital — just not the system for funding them in place. Together the duo have helped fund Columbus’s top insurtech startups and launched the region to the world stage.
Mark is also the founder of JobsOhio, one of the top economic development agencies in Ohio — and in the country — dedicated to boosting innovation and driving job creation and new capital investment in Ohio.
Marlin Williams at StockX
As the VP of Global Diversity and Inclusion at StockX, Marlin Williams is all about building a more diverse and inclusive community. Her career may not have been the most typical path towards tech (she started out as a mortician!), but from her tech start at Compuware to leading programs at TechTown to founding Sisters Code in 2013, Marlin is a tech veteran with over 20 years of experience.
At StockX, Marlin has created the company’s first DE&I strategic plan, which she developed after interviewing more than 300 team members in her first couple months on the job.
Marlin is an international speaker, panelist and author. She also hosts a podcast called, “My Peace is Nonnegotiable.” In the podcast, Marlin gets personal telling stories about life and how important it is to relentlessly protect your peace in an exhausting world.
A community builder focused on diversity from all lenses, Marlin founded Sister Code with the mission to "Awaken the Mature Geek by empowering women ages 25-85+ to explore the world of coding and technology.” The organization has impacted the lives of 1500+ women to date.
Max Yoder at Lessonly
Max Yoder may be the CEO at Lessonly by Seismic, but he’s on a mission to make work better — and his community brighter. “Better Work” is a phrase coined by Max to describe moments where people find clarity, camaraderie and progress at work, and Lessonly is on a mission to help team change the way they work so people can live better lives. It’s a great mission, and Max has built a huge community around the idea.
Max and the Lessonly team also founded Brighter Indy, a fund that helps support the growth and development of kids in Indianapolis. Brighter Indy supports local nonprofits that offer meaningful learning opportunities for kids and help make the community better.
Monica Wheat at Techstars, Venture Catalysts, Backstage Capital
Monica Wheat is the Managing Director at Techstars Equitech, a co-founder of Venture Catalysts, and a venture partner at Backstage Capital. She’s a 20-year veteran of startup, corporate, and tech organizations who has worked hands-on in building a more equitable tech ecosystem. Since 2016, Monica has served as the cofounder and executive director of Venture Catalysts, a 501c3 non-profit that builds inclusive ecosystems. Monica has also been strategic in building out global accelerator programs in 4 cities (including Detroit) and a 12-city investment tour with Backstage Capital.
Stretching back to 2011, her history with Techstars includes her work as a mentor for Techstars Detroit, co-founding Techstars Detroit Startup Week, and helping spin off Techstars Startup Next into Founders Boost. This year, Monica took on a new role as Managing Director of Techstars Equitech Accelerator.
“The vision is big, but basic,” she told Techstars in an interview. “Revolutionize how venture and innovation is done using diversity and inclusion as a force multiplier.”
Monica shared her amazing insight with us at the virtual road tip in Ann Arbor and Detroit. Check out what she had to say about the Detroit tech community, inclusion, and how to continue its growth.
Patti Glaza at Invest Detroit’s ID Ventures
Detroit always once lagged in reputation for its recovery as a startup ecosystem, but no more, thanks to the hard work of Patti Glaza of Invest Detroit’s ID Ventures. She’s Executive Vice President and Managing Director of a fund that is revitalizing Detroit for Detroiters and with Detroiters.
According to the MEDC, “Since 2009, Invest Detroit Ventures has provided more than $11 million to 112 high-tech Michigan-based startups, attracting more than $800 million in additional investment and leading to 11 exits. Its Accelerate Michigan, First Capital Fund, and Hacker Fellows programs, supported by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s Entrepreneurship & Innovation initiative, provide further support to the startup community, offering an annual startup pitch competition, initial investment and yearlong fellowship, respectively.”
It’s the attraction of additional funding that has revolutionized Michigan startup funding and allowed an ecosystem of hard-working entrepreneurs to finally thrive. In Detroit, that doesn’t just mean exits. It means community. Detroit is a big city that functions like a small town. In the entrepreneurial ecosystem, at least, everybody knows everybody, and that close contact combined with new funding has led to many successful new ventures.
Skip Simms and Paul Krutko of Ann Arbor SPARK
Paul Krutko and Skip Simms of Ann Arbor SPARK, a tech startup incubator and economic development corporation in the city of Ann Arbor, Michigan, are the President/CEO and Senior VP of the single most important organization to support the historic growth of the emerging tech hub. Ann Arbor already has had a tradition of life sciences and health research at the University of Michigan hospital and university research systems, as well as a growing software startup ecosystem.
It wasn’t until Ann Arbor SPARK and its predecessors developed a program to incubate startups and support the tech ecosystem in Ann Arbor that the region had the critical mass to begin to take off as it has. Almost half of Michigan’s growing startups are located in Ann Arbor, and the city has had so much success with recent startup funding rounds and acquisitions of tech companies that the conversation of equal opportunity and cost of living is already becoming an issue for the town’s real estate. You would have a hard time pinpointing the birth of a tech event, networking group, or startup that doesn’t have some kind of a relationship with Ann Arbor SPARK. Plus, Skip Simms is a Michigan angel investor, working on both ends to keep funding growing in the state that has seen the largest jump in VC funds in recent years. The angels aren’t far behind.
T. Wolf Starr at Pride Fund 1
Wolf Starr is the CEO at Atlas Venture Partners and the Managing Partner at Pride Fund 1 in Columbus. An entrepreneur, festival organizer, and natural community builder. Wolf is a genius at helping others connect with each other, and the whole Midwest community is better off for it.
As Managing Partner at Pride Fund 1, Wolf helps empower startups led by LGBTQ+ founders or that serve the LGBTQ+ community. “For the community and owned by the community,” it’s important to the Pride Fund 1 team is that they provide value beyond writing a check: introducing them to their first client, helping them find people for their team, or making an introduction that changes their whole trajectory, for example.
And if connecting people is a superpower, Wolf has it. As someone who wants to elevate the entire community, Wolf is always ready to help make meaningful connections, steer people toward resources, or partner with folks who share the mission.
There are so many more people working hard to make the Midwest a growing startup community. Midwest tech leaders are famously hard-working and not necessarily in the public eye, but we are always inspired by the work they do. We hope you are too.
Who would you give a Purpose Award to?
If you’re looking to get involved in the Midwest startup and tech community, there’s lots of ways to jump in: