By Anna Kuchment
The Dallas Morning News.
When Gabriella Draney had an idea for a technology startup several years ago, many business people advised her to move to Silicon Valley.
“I was told over and over again that I wouldn’t be able to accomplish the goals that I wanted to accomplish living in Dallas,” she said.
Instead of leaving the city where she grew up, Draney launched a business that has helped dozens of technology entrepreneurs build their dreams in North Texas.
Tech Wildcatters, which Draney co-founded in 2010, takes early-stage companies and helps them improve their products, build a customer base and secure investors. The company, known as a technology accelerator, has helped make Dallas one of the fastest-growing technology hubs in the U.S.
Draney will speak at the Dallas Festival of Ideas in the Arts District on Feb. 27 and 28. The event is presented by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, The Dallas Morning News and CrowdSource, the events arm of The News.
Dallas, Draney points out, has been a tech capital for decades. In 1958, engineer Jack Kilby invented the microchip while working at Texas Instruments, and he later won the Nobel Prize for his work. Today, numerous chip makers call Dallas home, as well as telecommunications giants like AT&T and Ericsson, which has its North American headquarters in Plano.
Since the late 1990s, the local tech economy has diversified and attracted companies that develop mobile apps, social networking tools, cloud computing solutions and more.
Tech Wildcatters has helped spur that change. Jeremy Vickers, vice president for innovation at the Dallas Regional Chamber, said Draney’s company was one of the first accelerators in the region. “Accelerators are a huge catalyst, because they not only foster the creation of companies but they provide fuel for them to grow,” he said.
Outside North Texas, however, people often don’t associate Dallas with innovation. “We’re not terribly good at talking about ourselves in the press,” said Draney.
Yet Texas has a history of innovation going back to the first oil boom at the turn of the last century.
“I use the ‘Wildcatters’ name for a reason,” said Draney. “So many innovations have been created to get oil and gas out of the ground.”
Dallas has its own distinct tech culture that distinguishes it from the coasts.
First, it’s more family-friendly, said Draney. “It’s normal for people to have families and run businesses here, whereas on the West Coast they look at you like you have a third eye,” she said. “When I tell [West Coasters] I have a 16-year-old son, they’re like, ‘What happened?'”
The low cost of living and the low expenses associated with starting a business also make it easier to raise children while taking financial risks.
John Adler, a general partner in venture capital firm Silver Creek Ventures, said Dallas also takes a pragmatic approach to building new businesses.
“We don’t get too caught up in the financing of the deal or in how cool the technology is,” he said. The emphasis is on helping companies build a solid customer base and on seeing them through to profitability, goals on which Tech Wildcatters also focuses.
There are a few areas where Dallas still lags behind other technology hubs. North Texas has little startup capital available for new companies, Draney said. The financing, known as Series A funding, marks the first bit of institutional investment that a new company receives. It ranges from $2 million to $10 million.
“People building funds don’t necessarily see Dallas as a great place with great deal flow, although it is,” said Draney. “So you’ve got the chicken-and-egg problem.”
Like other parts of the country, Dallas also suffers from a shortage of programming talent, because there are so many local companies competing for employees with those skills.
Draney is working to fill that gap. Earlier this month, she and her husband, technology entrepreneur Peter Zielke, launched nonprofit EpicU, a one-year free-of-charge programming course for college-age students. Enrollees spend the first three months taking full-time classes and the last nine months taking part-time classes while serving as paid apprentices to experienced coders.
Draney often gets asked why more women don’t become technology CEOs. There are a million answers to that question, she said.
First, she considers herself an anomaly because she has always been drawn to male-dominated fields such as aviation and physics. At 19, before she attended the University of North Texas and the Cox School of Business at SMU, she helped start her first company. The small firm designed digital scheduling systems for aviation companies.
At UNT, Draney gravitated toward astrophysics as a major but switched to finance. As a young wife and mother, she felt pressure to avoid moving her family in pursuit of a Ph.D.
“When girls are little, we’re told that we’re supposed to stay at home and have a family, especially in the South,” she said.
At Tech Wildcatters, Draney has assembled an all-female executive team. The company has five full-time and several part-time employees.
The company takes an 8 percent stake in the startups it accepts into its three-month accelerator program. In exchange, the startups receive $25,000 in seed money from Tech Wildcatters, plus free office space, coaching, mentoring and face-to-face meetings with major corporations and other potential customers.
“Gabriella has been helping startups while also running her own, which requires a lot of agility and energy,” said Adler.
Many of the international businesses she has helped have put down roots in Dallas, and hundreds of others have sprung up to join them.
“Sure enough,” said Draney, “a full community has grown up that we’re just a small part of.”