Q&A: Incoming StartingBlock Director Nora Roughen-Schmidt Seeks To Break Barriers To Entry For Entrepreneurs

By Natalie Yahr The Wisconsin State Journal

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) "StartingBlock" Director Nora Roughen-Schmidt shares her plans for the Madison entrepreneurship hub which currently houses 69 startups as well as several VC funds.


On Monday, Nora Roughen-Schmidt will take the reins as executive director of StartingBlock, Madison's hub for startups and entrepreneurs. Dreamed up in 2012, StartingBlock opened its doors in 2018 and is now home to 69 startups, four venture capital funds and 14 organizations supporting entrepreneurs.

A Madison native, Roughen-Schmidt comes to the role after six years fostering entrepreneurship in Wisconsin's Driftless region. As executive director of Viroqua Chamber Main Street, she took unusual steps to support prospective business owners, using everything from dental insurance to podcasts to get the job done.

"One of the biggest priorities for me in my position ... was to continue to make sure that any barrier to entry for small business and startups was handled," she said.

She also launched an innovative "pop-up shop" initiative, which allowed entrepreneurs to occupy vacant downtown commercial space rent-free for three months while also receiving help with everything from legal issues to marketing and banking. That combination of one-on-one support and free space proved to be "a game changer," Roughen-Schmidt said, and right from the start, half of the participating businesses -- ranging from bakeries to shops selling gently-used technology to yoga studios -- went on to sign leases to continue their operations.

Roughen-Schmidt has spread the word at national conferences, and around 20 communities, including Baraboo and Sheboygan, have since adapted the model to fill downtown vacancies.

"As the program became more and more successful, different communities around the state started to pay attention and say, 'Well, if Viroqua can do this and have so much success ... I think we can do this,'" Roughen-Schmidt said.

The Cap Times spoke with the incoming director about how retirement accounts foster entrepreneurship, why she's staying in the Driftless and where she sees bright spots in the midst of this pandemic.

Beyond the pop-up shop program, what were some of the other ways you sought to break down barriers to entry for entrepreneurs and startups in Viroqua?

One of the things that we did, which is not super common, is we developed a vision and dental insurance plan for all of our members. Very low-cost, super accessible. Each plan has three tiers, from the most comprehensive to the most basic, something that would be affordable by all, whether it's a startup that has two folks, or somebody with a team of 40. We also developed a retirement plan. So many people hang on to 9-to-5 jobs because they're worried about retirement. I also spent several years trying to tackle a full health insurance plan, which is still kind of pending. But I believe it's either Green Bay or Appleton, one of the chambers of commerce there, has actually successfully put together a health insurance plan for all of their members. So things like that are possible, which is really great.

You even made a podcast for entrepreneurs? The idea behind the podcast was acknowledging that informational sessions and classes at certain times of the day were not going to serve every single person. That is how the 54665 podcast was born. It was all about entrepreneurs on the go. And the podcast provided a really important opportunity to dive into some topics that people didn't always talk about as it related to entrepreneurship: mental health issues, financial issues, what it's like to own a business with your spouse and then literally be with them 24/7.

I think my favorite anecdote from the time with the 54665 podcast was that a loyal listener was having a contractor build a garage on his property, and the contractor, just in small talk, had said he was really interested in working for himself and starting his own entity, but he really had some questions about how to do all of those things. And our loyal listener turned on the 54665 podcast for him. And as he worked, he listened to how to start your LLC, how to get your finances in order as a small business. So it makes me really happy and really proud that the show did impact people in such a positive way and that it was really a useful tool.

How does Madison's startup scene compare with the startup scene in Viroqua? I think Madison is unique in that it truly is a startup community with access to many, many resources. I think that in Viroqua, it is an emerging startup economy, so they are many years behind Madison. The scale is just entirely different, so it's hard to compare them completely. But Madison is very friendly to entrepreneurs, and I'm excited in this new position to continue to support that ecosystem and move it forward.

StartingBlock's announcement about your hire noted the uncertainty of the current moment but said sometimes disruption can be a good thing. In what ways, if any, could this terrible situation create positive changes for entrepreneurs?

Anytime that there's a shake-up, it is a time that entrepreneurs and creative people start to get moving and ideas start flowing. One of the things that I observed in Viroqua, just as I was getting ready to make my exit, was buildings that were for rent being rented out and new businesses coming in. And as I was training last week, I noticed that there are some new member-tenants moving into StartingBlock. And I think, once all of the shock moves on, people start to get really creative and figure out what their pivot is going to be or what new service or app or solution they're going to come up with. And so I have no doubt that the creative communities will rise during this challenging time.

You're the co-chair of the Growing Workforce Opportunities Committee, part of the Governor's Council on Workforce Investment. What do you think it means for a startup scene to seek to expand opportunity or increase diversity?

What the committee has really been focusing on is very similar to the things that I was focusing on in Viroqua: How do you eliminate barriers to entry? So there's a tremendous amount of focus on daycare, flexible work, transportation, continuing education, and then a tremendous amount of time has also been spent on brain drain, and how do we best serve students who are leaving UW-Madison and heading to other places? How do we get them to stay here and show them that there are opportunities for their creative ideas or opportunities with employers throughout the state of Wisconsin? So those have been some of the biggest goals.

You're from Madison, but you're going to be staying living in the Driftless. Why? Madison is one of my favorite places on the planet. It was the greatest place in the entire world to grow up in, and I'm thrilled to be coming home to lead StartingBlock Madison. My other favorite place in the entire world is my 40-acre farm in Richland County, where we grow organic produce and I have some happy free-range hens and a herding dog who appreciates wide open spaces to run and play. My family is very into fly fishing and trout fishing and one of our favorite streams is just a couple miles down the road. You know, this place is a major part of my identity. And I'm incredibly fortunate to have family in Madison and the opportunity to commute or stay as needed. A second home in Madison has been on the agenda for my family for quite some time, so I guess we'll have to see what happens on that part.

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