(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second article in a four-part series where Charlie Brock, until recently the President and Chief Executive Officer of Launch Tennessee, discusses his nearly six years with the statewide public-private partnership. Don’t miss Part 4; it’s a surprise.)
By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
Charlie Brock’s first day on the job as President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Launch Tennessee was January 28, 2013.
“There was a lot of uncertainty with this new person,” he recalls with that characteristic smile on his face. Launch Tennessee had a small staff, and the person who has become his top deputy – Chief Program Officer Jill Van Beke – was on maternity leave. Ironically, she is the only individual from the staff he inherited who is still on the team.
As he was beginning to assess the strengths and capabilities of the staff, Brock also faced a very critical decision.
“It was a wild first couple of weeks,” he said, referencing a proposed major event scheduled for less than five months later. It was conceived as a tool to bring more attention from across the region and country to the Volunteer State and hopefully attract more investment capital for local start-ups.
While it was a great idea, Brock had legitimate concerns, most notably the fact that many details like speaker commitments had not been resolved.
“I was being encouraged to go forward,” he recalls, but he was not sure it could be pulled-off at the level of quality he expected. “We had to make a decision within days to go forward or pull the plug.”
Fortunately, Brock was able to pull the proverbial rabbit out of the hat, drawing on some connections on the West Coast that in turn produced a line-up of great presenters. That event, as those who were involved in the statewide entrepreneurial ecosystem at the time will recall, was “Southland,” and we captured some of the excitement in this article on teknovation.biz from June 2013.
The second “Southland” conference and the aftermath of separating from a key partner “was certainly the low point in my tenure,” Brock says. For those who don’t know the story, it’s not worth the time to rehash it. What’s important is how it influenced what happened at Launch Tennessee going forward.
“That (recovering from the second “Southland”) was the rallying cry for our team,” Brock says. “We said we are going to overcome this, rebuild, and do it (the event) on our own. In doing so, we focused on the core values of the organization and committed to making sure we had alignment with our values in every decision that we made going forward.”
“Southland” evolved into what is now known as the “36|86 Entrepreneurship Festival” that had its latest run in August in Nashville with multiple venues and more than 1,214 attendees including about 40 percent minority representation.
“It clearly has put Tennessee on the map,” Brock says, underscoring the original goal and validating the early 2013 decision to not pull the plug.
While the “36|86 Entrepreneurship Festival” might be the most visible program of Launch Tennessee, Brock believes his most lasting legacy is something else.
“It’s the statewide collaborative infrastructure of support for entrepreneurs,” he says without any hesitation. When Brock arrived in early 2013, there was a loose knit set of nine regional entrepreneur centers. Today, there’s a much stronger, more interconnected set of programs that work with each other. Those include entrepreneur support organizations in six cities plus two mentor networks.
“Marcus (Shaw at CO.LAB in Chattanooga) can pick-up the phone and call Leslie (Smith at Epicenter in Memphis) or Abby Trotter at Life Science Tennessee to secure help for one of his clients,” Brock says as an example.
At the same time, he also believes there is still more that can be done to leverage this collective set of assets for the good of entrepreneurs.
NEXT: How the history of one program underscores Brock’s leadership philosophy and the departing CEO’s thoughts on the future.