Provo—More and more, entrepreneurs are finding that Utah is the place for startups. Now, a group of some of the tech industry’s best and brightest have come together to foster that burgeoning sector.
The Startup Foundation, a nonprofit organization officially announced and launched Nov. 23, is geared towards helping building a community of startups and entrepreneurs and connecting them with mentors from established companies, said founder Aaron Skonnard, CEO of Pluralsight.
“We thought that a foundation of CEOs and entrepreneurs would almost organically combust and kind of take off from there, which is what we’re seeing because there’s a real strong desire within the startup community and all the entrepreneurs out there to come together like this,” he said.
While it’s still early, the foundation certainly has enough heavyweights on its side. Besides Skonnard, the group’s board is comprised of Jill Layfield, CEO of Backcountry; Clint Betts, founder of Beehive Startups; Carine Clark, CEO of Maritzcx; Bryce Roberts, managing director of OATV; Blake Modersitzki, managing director of Pelion Ventures; Dave Bateman, CEO of Entrata; Matt Wells, partner at Holland & Hart; Mark Chenn, CEO of Saltstack; and Rachael Herrscher, CEO of todaysmama.com.
Skonnard says recruiting—an ongoing process—has been easy, even though many of the board members have had to turn down other, paying board opportunities in order to have time for Start Foundation.
“It highlighted for me how much of an appetite there was for this and to build up Utah,” he said. “With this, because it’s truly about helping Utah and helping future generations and the ecosystem, I think it was really easy for everyone to justify [giving their time for] this and giving back.”
The group’s goal is threefold, Skonnard said. By connecting prior generations of successful entrepreneurs with the new up-and-comers, a culture of mentorship is formed, he said, as well as introduces entrepreneurs with potential investors. The community formed in that way also helps those just starting out learn the ropes more quickly than on their own, he said. That kind of community is something he said he wishes he had when he started Pluralsight 12 years ago.
“I didn’t know any entrepreneurs in Utah. I felt completely alone. There were no events I knew of where I could just go and start meeting people. I didn’t know who the VCs were or about venture capital. I didn’t know who the best law firms or accounting firms or advisors were in the state. If you’re building a company in a place that doesn’t foster this kind of ecosystem, it’s really hard,” he said.
The “Silicon Slopes” area is poised to be launched into a full-fledged startup scene because of the strong business and entrepreneurship programs at the University of Utah, Utah Valley University and Brigham Young University, as well as the nucleus of tech companies populating the southern Salt Lake Valley-northern Utah Valley areas, Skonnard says. However, he said, the group is focused on promoting a strong startup culture throughout the state and promote all Utah has to offer, rather than focusing on one area.
“That’s what we’re trying to do—having a nonprofit here in the state that’s not owned or controlled by any one company that is trying to emphasize Utah—we’re not trying to be a Silicon Valley copycat,” he said. “We really want to emphasize what’s unique about Utah.”
The group is primarily focused on tech startups and encouraging development in the STEM fields, he said. However, this season, the Start Foundation is teaming up with Beehive Startups and the United Way to raise book donations for low-income children. Skonnard said in low-income neighborhoods, there are as few as one book for every 300 children—in Utah County, that means nearly 35,000 children are sharing less than 120 books. Donations from companies competing to be the highest donators can be tracked on the foundation’s website, startfoundation.com.
“We’re talking about computer technology and STEM, but if you can’t read, you can’t do those things,” Skonnard said. “We’re going to get tons of books out in the community, which will hopefully put a small dent in a big problem.”