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Entrepreneurs thrive in the ‘biggest small town in America’

Neal Sharma, Jenny Miller, Dave Hensley and Bar K

Clockwise, from left: Neal Sharma, CEO of DEG Digital and current co-chair of KC Rising; KCSourceLink’s Jenny Miller (in red sweater) chats during a quarterly resource partner meeting; Dave Hensley, co-founder of Bar K, and a view of the fully staffed dog park that has a bar, restaurant and event space. (Submitted photos)

In Missouri’s largest city, positioned just near the geographical center of the United States and nestled among the confluence of the Missouri and Kansas rivers, there’s a natural ebb and flow among the business class that fosters mentorships and unlocks the doors of opportunity for future startups. Some call it the ‘Kansas City nice.’ Some say it’s because KC is a big-small-town. Still, one civic leader cites a rich entrepreneurial history that dates to icons like Ewing Kauffman, J.C. Hall, and Neal Patterson, who built legacy corporations from humble beginnings.

Neal Sharma, the CEO of DEG Digital and current co-chair of KC Rising, explained that established business leaders took a keen interest in his success in his early days. He said that Barnett Helzberg, who started Helzberg Diamonds and founded the Helzberg Entrepreneurial Mentoring Program, drew Sharma into his network. Helzberg explained that Ewing Kauffman had done the same for him. Early on, he also met Neal Patterson, the founder of Kansas City’s largest private employer, Cerner, who made sure he was also included on guest lists and featured at high profile events.

“It’s the biggest small town in America, and there’s not a chip on anybody’s shoulder, and in a very Ted Lasso kind of way, other scions of business and entrepreneurialism are willing to meet with those starting and scaling a business in a very warm, gracious and, mentoring way. And that is, I think, a very, very Kansas City thing,” said Sharma.

Sharma went on to say that in addition to the spirit of approachability that blankets the business community, the fact that the ‘temple of entrepreneurship’ in the United States lives at the Kauffman Foundation, there also exists a functional infrastructure that makes it easy to plug in and get a business started.

KC Sourcelink, a not-for-profit funded by federal and local grants, serves as the central hub of the city’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. They connect more than 240 business-building organizations to resources, coaches, and funding opportunities across the bi-state region. Jenny Miller, the organization’s chief network builder, describes KC Sourcelink as a ‘one-stop-shop.’ When potential entrepreneurs first call, Miller will perform triage to assess their needs. Next she outlines the following three to five steps needed to move forward and then identifies the people, programs, and organizations to connect with to accomplish each step of the plan.

Miller says the open-door culture of Kansas City is unique. “We have found that other business owners are always willing to have a cup of coffee and share their experience. Having somebody that knows somebody that can help is very common.”

Drawing from Ewing Kauffman’s vision that entrepreneurism is the most effective way to grow the economy and foster personal development, the Kauffman Foundation developed 1 Million Cups nearly a decade ago in Kansas City. This free program, designed to educate, engage, and inspire entrepreneurs, now reaches 160 cities. Based on that casual conversation over a cup of coffee, the events provide a structured way for up-and-comers to refine pitches, receive feedback and coaching, and expose ideas to a diverse audience. Miller says folks are craving to connect again when we can safely emerge into the post-pandemic world.

In addition to connections, startups need capital, and historically, Kansas City has leaned more on the practical side. Sharma said, “The investment community is mature and has some distance to travel before it becomes as sophisticated as many of our aspirant metros.” But he does see the region shifting towards a more risk-tolerant approach. Miller added that “there’s never enough capital to go around.” Still, there are various ways to access funds ranging from early-stage proof of concept funding, angel networks, accelerators, venture capital funds, and certified financial development corporations.

Dave Hensley, the co-founder of Bar K, a fully staffed dog park complete with a bar, restaurant, and event space, decided to launch their startup in Kansas City partly because of the relationships he and his co-founder had in town. “There was no blueprint for this; you couldn’t go to somebody’s office and say, we want to open up a dog park bar and then turn to page 53 in a book and say, all right, here’s what you do.” However, he says one of the beauties is that you are one degree of separation from someone who can help you get off the ground.

“I think there’s in Kansas City a love for having something that’s considered a KC original. When you can create something that doesn’t exist anywhere else, and it originates here in Kansas City, you start to get a lot of people that will get behind that, and it generates momentum.” Hensley has plans in the works to expand Bar K into both St. Louis and Oklahoma City markets and hopes to make new venues jibe with the unique community culture in each site by partnering with other local businesses. He says the one-degree of separation approach that exists in Kansas City will be helpful as they grow and advises would-be entrepreneurs to “be diligent about seeking out people that will want to help you.”

KC entrepreneurs relish the small-town networking climate, the established professional and cultural history, and the building block infrastructure needed to foster successful launches. However, Ryan Weber, the president and CEO of the KC Tech Council, which facilitates industry access, workforce development, and policy advocacy for its members, says the city could benefit by owning its bragging rights. “Kansas City needs to have more swagger; we are hard on ourselves. We are an affordable place to live, a good place to raise a family, and we have an ecosystem of philanthropy through Kauffman, education institutions like UMKC that support innovation, and even our own news outlets to promote startups like Startland News to tell the stories.”

Neal Sharma says that Kansas City has a creative class that has been punching above it’s weight for a long time and now is attracting a young, fresh, high caliber talent pipeline ready to tap into coffee, conversations and a culture of connections planted right in center of the country.

 

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