Castillos bring personal enthusiasm, energy to entrepreneurship in NE TN

A conversation with Shannon and Jose Castillo of Johnson City is fast-paced, inspirational and invigorating. In fact, it makes you want to drop whatever you are doing at the moment and join their growing band of followers.

The power couple is involved in so many things – from “Spark Plaza” in downtown Johnson City to the upcoming “Ready Set Boost” event on June 19 in Greeneville and the fifth annual “Will This Float?” business competition later this fall in Northeast Tennessee.

They are not Johnson City natives – Jose was born in Pennsylvania and spent a number of years in Knoxville, while Shannon moved from Salem, OH to the region to attend Milligan College. Yet, after talking with the Castillos, it is clear how dedicated they are to the region and its development.

During our first Skype interview for teknovation.biz, Shannon described the complementary nature of the couple that celebrated their 13th wedding anniversary on May 30.

“I think you tend to marry someone similar to your parents,” she said. “Jose and dad are very similar.”

Shannon explained that her father was the visionary, just like Jose, while her mother was the detail-oriented person, just as she is. These complementary traits are on display in the three-year old “Spark Plaza” collaboration space they developed in downtown Johnson City as well as their many collaborative activities.

“We really realized there is a synergy between us when Jose has a big idea and I put feet to it,” she said.

In the case of the Spark Plaza (sparkplaza.com) – their first joint venture, it’s a 1,600 square foot co-working space designed for people who are very mobile and need unique space to suit their work needs. It is home to up to 19 tenants – nine full-time and 10 part-time. (EDITOR’S NOTE: A recent Johnson City Press article on Spark Plaza can be found at http://www.johnsoncitypress.com/Business/article.php?id=99744).

“We saw there was a need for mobile professionals and those trying to start businesses in Johnson City,” Shannon said, adding in a characteristic understated way that “we played a small part.” Others, like Chamber President and Chief Executive Officers Gary Mabrey, praise the commitment that the Castillos have made.

“It’s been fun and exciting to sit with the Castillos, and our roller coaster ride is going to go higher and faster,” Mabrey said, describing Jose as my “personal and professional entrepreneurial guru.” We are positioning and repositioning our community for the next waves, so all who are near, get ready for the ride of the decade.”

Shannon currently serves as Director of Marketing and Community Outreach for Milligan College, her alma mater. Jose, on the other hand, travels extensively as a speaker and consultant on the convergence of technology and marketing through his firm, Thinkjose LLC (thinkjose.com). From his travels, Jose has observed “best practices” in other communities and brought many of those ideas back to the region.

Whether traveling or working locally, he talks passionately about “bringing people together so ideas can be generated. We want to have fun and generate excitement.”

This philosophy was the driving force behind the events like “Geek South” that emerged from a “Geek Dinner” that he launched in 2005 and the more recent “Will This Float?” that he organized more than four years ago.

Jose says his “real goal from the beginning” was making it possible for entrepreneurs to succeed in Northeast Tennessee.

“We need to foster a culture of creativity, entrepreneurship and idea sharing in the region,” he says, adding that “we have a real lack of venture capital . . . but we’re working on it.”

Shannon says that much progress has been made.

“We’re at a critical mass of good things happening,” she says, citing the new AccelNow regional accelerator, strong leadership from East Tennessee State University, and the commitment of the Chamber.

“We must have more regional collaboration,” Shannon adds. “There have been plenty of turf wars. We don’t need a climate of no.”

Jose adds that the region needs the “private and public sectors to step-up” to address unmet needs like early and later stage investment capital.

“The accelerator model is touching on this – ideas to investments,” he says, but adds that “there is a big chunk (of need) between (pitches at) ‘Will This Float?’ (willthisfloat.com) and investment money.”

The June 19 “Ready Set Boost” (readysetboost.com) event in Greeneville is another opportunity that Jose believes can help create excitement for the region. He credits Robbie Britton for adding the business-focused sessions to a long-standing regional event.

“Gary Vaynerchuk has never spoken in this region,” he says about The New York Times bestselling author who will serve as keynote speaker. Vaynerchuk focuses on entrepreneurship, social media, emerging technologies, and the new frontiers of customer service made possible by the Internet.

Vaynerchuk will speak on the “Ready” part while Jose will address the “Set” idea. The third keynote speaker – Todd Mitchem – will focus on the “Boost” component.

The event will be held from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the Niswonger Performing Arts Center in Greeneville. More information and registration details are available at http://readysetboost.com/.

As the Castillos pursue their vision for and passion about their region, they are constantly encouraging others to step-up.

“Volunteerism is something we feel very strongly about,” Shannon says. “We love Johnson City. Our heart will always be in downtown.”

It’s clear they are doing their part.

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