Field Consulting in the Music City

Last week I had the opportunity to visit Nashville for three days as part of a research trip for my field consulting project. Field consulting is a student-led team project that allows us to apply skills and lessons learned during the first year and a half of the MBA program to solve a current business problem. Our client is New Richmond Ventures, a venture development firm focused on supporting and growing early-stage enterprises in Richmond, Virginia.

Our task is to identify and understand key components of successful entrepreneurial ecosystems and in turn draft a framework and a plan to accelerate the ecosystem in Richmond. During our initial research, we identified cities such as Nashville and Austin as candidates for in-depth study. Little did we know at the time, an opportunity to travel to Nashville would present itself during the project.

I arrived in Music City on Wednesday morning and spent the afternoon at Vanderbilt visiting with Dr. Germain Boer, the director of the Entrepreneur Center on campus. Dr. Boer has been a member of the faculty since 1977 and has seen Nashville grow from its country music roots to the thriving health care and entertainment capital it has become. He offered his unique perspective on the role Vanderbilt plays within the local startup community, connecting students to the resources and opportunities the ecosystem offers. Following the formation of HCA — Hospital Corporation of America — in 1968, Nashville has emerged as the focal point of the American health care industry, spawning countless related practices and companies over the years. Entrepreneurship is part of Nashville’s heritage, and today the focus is on tech and IT startup opportunities in health care.

Wednesday night I had a meeting with Alison Lynch – the Director of Entrepreneurial Growth & Engagement for the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce. We were joined by several local entrepreneurs, providing me first-hand accounts of the ecosystem and how they had started companies in Nashville. They spoke of the unique startup culture in Nashville and how help and advice are always just one phone call away, and that the quality of life in Nashville is hard to beat. An emerging restaurant scene, low cost of living and public support of the ecosystem are all contributing to the growing momentum. The Chamber’s latest initiative is to bring entrepreneurial education into the local high school system.

I was joined by teammate and fellow MBA student Billy Ekofo on Thursday and Friday, as we visited the Entrepreneur Center in downtown Nashville. Michael Bircham, CEO/president of the EC, and his staff were gracious hosts over the two days as we observed startups in action, mentor training and investor pitch practices. The EC, originally formed through a Chamber initiative with the city of Nashville, runs a 14-week accelerator program that connects entrepreneurs to mentors and talent in the ecosystem and ultimately prepares them for the investment phase.

The EC will be moving into a new “creative district” in May, serving as the anchor tenant in a converted trolley barn just a few blocks away from Broadway. The new space will be four times the size, providing spaces for startup companies, mentors and services such as legal, accounting and finance. The new EC will also have a full-time event coordinator, who will be in charge of planning meet-ups and social events that bring the ecosystem together.

The role a physical space, or front door, plays in the ecosystem has been an intriguing piece of our research and project as Richmond now looks at the possibility of establishing a similar space. Based on various conversations and interviews while there, the consensus is the physical existence of the EC has greatly contributed to the emergence of Nashville’s ecosystem. The EC connects all of the various elements of the ecosystem but has also led to a noticeable increase in venture funding as it prepares startups for the seed stage.

An additional highlight of the trip was a social event — Spark Nashville — organized by a local startup that drew more than 350 entrepreneurs, students and individuals connected to the ecosystem. We were able to witness what amounted to a celebration of the ecosystem’s growing notoriety, but also gain additional valuable research and insight into the ecosystem.

Overall, the trip was an incredible experience to not only build our recommendations and project research, but also extend our personal networks and contacts into one of the most vibrant cities for business and culture in the country. The field consulting experience provided this amazing opportunity and the program has certainly achieved its goal of providing “real-world” experience for our team.

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Mark Hoskins

Mark Hoskins is an MBA candidate at the College of William and Mary's Mason School of Business.

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