Fueling Tech Innovation and Empowering Entrepreneurs - ETI
X

Want to take a Self-Guided tour?




August 17, 2023

Fueling Tech Innovation and Empowering Entrepreneurs

The following transcript has been edited for length and readability. Listen to the entire discussion here on The Broadband Bunch. The Broadband Bunch is sponsored by ETI Software.

Joe Coldebella:

Hello, and welcome to another episode of The Broadband Bunch. I’m your host, Joe Colabella, and we are in historic downtown Wilson, North Carolina at the 2023 Gig East Event. The Gig East Summit is an annual event that exists to bring together local entrepreneurs, business owners, community partners, and industry thought leaders. Joining me are Tom Snyder, the Executive Director of Riot.org, and Rachel Newberry, the Program Director at Riot. Tom and Rachel, welcome to the Broadband Bunch.

Rachel Newberry:

Thanks for having us.

Tom Snyder:

Yeah, we’re glad to be here.

Empowering Tech Sector Growth and Entrepreneurship

Joe Coldebella:

This has been an absolutely phenomenal event. I have been talking with everybody about the folks that are involved with the event and the people that attended. It has been awesome. Before we dive into all those great things, I would love it if you could each give a little bit of background on yourself and your story.

Tom Snyder:

I would love to. Thanks again for having us. It’s great to be here. I am Tom Snyder, and I founded Riot about nine years ago to help grow the tech sector work in the technology industry. I’m an engineer by background. I spent about 20 years working in large publicly traded companies, designing consumer electronics, mobile phones, wearable electronics, and portable devices. I have had the privilege of working all over the world on interesting projects that sold hundreds of millions of unit volumes.

And what I found that was interesting though was that throughout my career, as happens from time to time in tech, it’s kind of cyclical, there were big restructuring events. Lots of people laid off and other things. And so, I founded Riot several years ago to address entrepreneurship and help people who’ve been displaced to maybe say instead of finding a job that’s going and create a job through a new business venture. And of course that’s expanded to many other areas.

Diversity and Inspiration

Joe Coldebella:

Yeah, it’s great. You are cooking with gasoline. Before we hand it over to Rachel, I have one question for you. I was reading your bio, and I saw something that I had to ask you. You said that you like big crowds, and I’ve never seen that before. And I would love it if you could unpack that for me.

Tom Snyder:

I’m a social and extroverted individual. So getting out into crowds and things is fun. Whether that’s at a conference or convention, whether that’s at a concert, whether that’s at a rally, whatever it might be. I find that I draw a lot of inspiration from meeting people that come from different backgrounds. I think that it’s important to have diverse input into your thinking and into everything that we do, whether it’s in our individual lives or in our companies. So crowds just increase the surface area of how many people you can meet.

Joe Coldebella:

Awesome. Love it. Rachel, please.

From Startup Enthusiast to Program Director

Rachel Newberry:

Yeah, thanks, Joe. I am Rachel Newberry, program director at Riot. I’m a North Carolina girl. I was born and raised in the Triangle area. And I did my undergrad degree at UNC Chapel Hill where I was first exposed to entrepreneurship and through involvement with several startup programs at UNC. I then jumped into working with a tech accelerator in downtown Durham at the time that the Durham startup ecosystem was really growing. And then when I left UNC, I went to the dark side for a bit. I worked at Duke University and ran a behavioral science startup program, which was an interesting intersection of things.

So there, I had experience with program building and kind of creating an infrastructure for entrepreneurs to get connected to the resources that they need. And in that particular case, I taught entrepreneurs how to leverage behavioral science research to ultimately build better products for human end users. So I had a great time building that curriculum and facilitating original research with entrepreneurs and behavioral scientists.

And then I met Tom in 2018, and he was looking for someone to build and launch another accelerator program. This time it was focused on technology ventures with a bent toward job creation and helping entrepreneurs to get connected to kind of the broader tech ecosystem and collaborate with partners. And so I joined the Riot team five years ago to do that.

A Technology-Forward Haven for Innovation and Entrepreneurship

Joe Coldebella:

I’ve got to say as someone who’s just experiencing you guys for the first time, you guys did a phenomenal job yesterday leading everyone through what you’re doing. But if we could take one step out and talk a little bit about the area itself and the research triangle. I think Wilson is a great case, but I wonder if it’s because this area is known for being technology-forward. I’d love it if you could talk about that.

Tom Snyder:

Yeah, that’s a great point. The research triangle is a very tech-heavy region, right? It was a deliberately designed effort by the state of North Carolina to initially try and capture the semiconductor industry. Back in the sixties, they realized that they had these tier-one research universities, NC State, UNC, Duke, and others. And there was a lot of undeveloped land kind of in the center of all that near the airport. And they decided to cordon off some property specifically to attract research companies. So they weren’t looking to grow manufacturing. They weren’t looking to grow other sectors, but they wanted to focus on research in emerging technology. Today there are hundreds of companies that work in the park, and it is a tech-heavy region.

We’re headquartered in Raleigh, so Riot is right in the heart of it. But we found that entrepreneurship exists everywhere. And so as you start to get into areas that are adjacent like a Wilson — that’s only about 45 minutes from the triangle. It’s a small town. It’s a smaller town community, but it’s very tech-forward in its thinking. There are resources and tools here. Broadband, obviously we’re on the broadband bunch right now. Wilson really has been the leader in the state in realizing that broadband is a basic human right. That everybody should have it.

So the fact that it’s adjacent provides a different style of living for folks that maybe don’t want to live in the big city. But all the benefits of the triangle right around the corner are huge. And of course, as you know, now that work can be done from anywhere if you have a good broadband connection, you don’t even have to be working in Wilson to live in Wilson and work in Wilson if you will, but maybe for an organization far away.

How Wilson’s Forward-Thinking Approach and Gigabit Internet Fuel Entrepreneurial Growth

Joe Coldebella:

Yeah. Rachel, I’ve got to say that the Chamber of Congress should really consider bringing you on board because I thought that you did a phenomenal job of laying out all the great things that Wilson’s doing at the summit event itself. I would love it if you could give us a little snapshot of why you’re such a fan of Wilson.

Rachel Newberry:

Yeah, I’m always a huge advocate of Wilson, and we’re excited to be a part of the growth here. Riot started working with Wilson several years ago mostly in an advisory capacity as the city was thinking about what kinds of smart city initiatives they should be thinking about, and how to start to grow an entrepreneurial ecosystem here. So we really see broadband with Wilson’s view of it being a human right, a utility for all their residents. How do we use that as a sort of economic development platform? We’ve got this awesome technology resource here. How can we now help people to tap into that resource and leverage the broadband network to work remote tech jobs or start a company? There are all sorts of opportunities that open.

So with some of Riot’s startup support programs and events and us acting as a convener in the tech and entrepreneurship space, we saw a great opportunity here to bring some of our expertise paired with Wilson’s extremely forward-thinking leadership, the gigabit internet capabilities, and at the time they were starting to find a space to launch the Gig East Exchange which is now a vibrant community. And it provided this central collaboration space for the tech and arts and entrepreneurship and business folks to come together and collaborate. And so all those kinds of ingredients combined make this region ripe for tons of innovation. We’re really thrilled to be a part of that.

Broadband as the Fourth Utility

Joe Coldebella:

Yeah. You’re in the Durham area where the internet isn’t that big of a problem because you’ve got competition there, and its population is dense enough to where it’s not a huge problem. But out here in the smaller communities, you know, the 50,000, the 30,000 in population, it almost seems like it needs to become the fourth utility. What are your thoughts on that?

Tom Snyder:

You’re right. And the leadership here in Wilson recognized that before many or perhaps any of their peer communities around the state and around the country understood that. When you look at broadband or the providing of internet services, you know, an ISP kind of a model as the cost of the infrastructure deployment and maintenance versus the internet monthly service charges, access charges in a lot of smaller communities, the math doesn’t add up. And that’s why private industry has not gone into a lot of these smaller communities.

But when you look at the cost of that infrastructure to deploy and maintain versus the return on investment for a community that’s more than just the internet service charges, but it’s the tax-based growth. As people can do e-commerce, the ability to educate people remotely, the ability to do telehealth, you know, when you look at it more at a societal level, it’s a hugely positive ROI. And Wilson understood that early on, and that’s why this community is thriving today.

Empowering Economic Development through Job Creation and Tech Entrepreneurship

Joe Coldebella:

Yeah. When I was at the event, I was talking to some of the folks from Wilson, and this woman was from a neighboring county. And she said, “We have internet,” but then she gave me the look like, yeah, we really don’t have internet. So you really must applaud the folks from Wilson who understood and got on the broadband train before it left the station. But I want to learn about your organization as well. I was wondering if you could share a top line of what exactly Riot is.

Tom Snyder:

We think of ourselves as an economic development platform. If you work in tech, you have to call yourself a platform company. That’s kind of a rule.  I think every tech company wants to be a platform company, right? But what we mean by that is that our focus is on job creation. That’s our north star. How can we help to create jobs? Good jobs, tech jobs can help people to move up the income ladder if they may be moving from, say, an hourly position into tech, often can kind of move into more salaried and career-oriented jobs. But if you start a business, you also move up the wealth ladder through small business creation. And the technology tools today have become so affordable and democratized. Look at these generative AI tools as an example.

Anyone who just has an internet connection and a device can now get online and build something nearly instantly and start to solve problems in new ways and create a business and start to make money for themselves, but most importantly, kind of control their own destiny. Nothing against getting a job in an established industry, but you know, at times you’re at the whims of whatever that industry does or decision makers. And so we really focus on several different programs. And Rachel, I’ll let you talk about what some of those are that collectively we think of as platform tools for economic development and job creation.

Building Success through Collaboration

Joe Coldebella:

Yeah, I was looking in the back of your baseball card, and you guys are just killing it. There are so many folks lining up to be a part of your organization. That must be super gratifying. People are responding to it. And you’re not only doing that, but you’re also building something really awesome.

Rachel Newberry:

Yeah. Business is ultimately relationship driven. So we are the kind of central connector that helps people to find collaborators and business partners and customers and so on. To echo something that Stefan Youngblood, yesterday’s keynote at the GigEast Summit said, “If your business today is not accessing and leveraging AI tools or technologies that are emerging, then you will fall behind.”

And so a lot of our theses is around helping people to access those opportunities and not fall behind, but instead leverage emerging tech to pursue new business opportunities that serve market needs. But you know, they need the partners to do so. You know, you don’t have to have every kind of expertise in your business to be successful. It’s much more efficient to leverage partnerships.

How Riot’s Corporate Partners Embrace the Great Equalizer to Thrive in New Markets

Joe Coldebella:

Yeah. I couldn’t agree more. Chat GBT and all these different things, the internet, it’s an opportunity to be a great equalizer. I think that it’s something that we need to make sure that everyone understands that it is a great opportunity for us.

Tom Snyder:

There’s no question that it is. I encourage anyone who’s listening if you’re working in an established organization, we’re really honored to be supported by nearly a hundred corporate partners that provide funding to us. We’re a 501c3 organization so we can provide free resources to entrepreneurs. But some of these early-adopting companies that are supporting us are recognizing that in these kinds of mid-market and smaller communities, that’s a massive, massive amount of the total population. There is a huge opportunity for our corporate partners to do business in places that they haven’t even thought of doing business with before.

As small companies can launch and grow, they’re going to use someone’s cloud services. They’re going to use someone’s connectivity. They’re eventually going to need someone’s manufacturing lines, their attorneys, their accountants, and so on. And so, as Rachel said, we develop and run this industry consortium, but then we have several different tools that we use to connect those established companies to entrepreneurs, to startups. And it really creates a win for all partners involved.

How Riot’s RAP Event Fuels Startup Success and Networking Opportunities

Joe Coldebella:

Yeah, that’s great. Can you drill down in terms of creating an event? Was 2016 when you started the RAP event? Usually, when I hear the word rap, I think of rhythm and poetry. But what you guys do is totally different.

Rachel Newberry:

That’s right. So the Riot organization began in 2014 as a meetup group. So we were doing lots of tech convening. As part of that, we started to run pitch events for entrepreneurs that were working on interesting new technologies. And so in the early years of Riot, we did a lot of just one-to-one mentoring of startup companies which then kind of became the Riot Accelerator Program or RAP which is our formal, robust way that we support entrepreneurs. And we launched that program in 2018. At the GigEast Summit, we ran another pitch event that was highlighting startups that had come through our spring cohort of the Ride Accelerator Program, which was hosted here in Wilson. It’s always fun to put entrepreneurs on stage. It’s another platform for them to access resources because you never know what connection might be in the audience.

Pitching for Success

Joe Coldebella:

Absolutely. It is a win-win for both the folks who are on stage and the folks in the audience. I don’t think people realize how hard it is to throw yourself into this and then pitch it to three of the judges.  They were awesome, and they asked tough but fair questions. What sort of feedback are you getting from the participants in the event and the audience?

Tom Snyder:

We have had a lot of resounding positive feedback from the audience. I think everybody had a great time. One of the things that we like to do is to get the audience involved, right? So we gave everybody what we call Riot bucks. So the audience also got to be investors and kind of pick their own winner. I think that’s a lot of fun. But the point you made about having that courage to get up on stage, to pitch in front of a live audience, to describe your idea, and then to be asked about it by experts. These are expert investors that are making difficult decisions every day and talk to hundreds of startups. We coach these startups so that these competitions are won and lost in the Q and A.

You must have a good pitch, but you must be able to handle those questions in a good way and in productive way. I think they enjoy that challenge. I think that they know that when they’re able to answer those questions, they understand their industry well. And they can take pride in the fact that they really know that they understand that. And that’s going to create confidence in what they’re doing and for people that meet them to want to buy the product or service that this person has.

Entrepreneurial Feedback Drives Market Validation and Sustainable Business Growth

Joe Coldebella:

I think that we all live in our heads a lot. And then when these things rattle around and then you speak them aloud and people react to what you’re saying, I think it also gives you an opportunity to allow yourself to think about different solutions from those questions, from the feedback from the audience. It can help to confirm that you are going down the right path. Or you know, sometimes it’s like, wait, I need to pump the brakes here because I think my idea is brilliant, but the marketplace may say something totally different.

Rachel Newberry:

That’s right. That’s a huge core value of an entrepreneur participating in something like our accelerator program. It is the ability to get multiple perspectives into what they’re building. So it can be an isolating experience to start a company and to make the leap into entrepreneurship, but through a program, they can not only work alongside other entrepreneurs and learn a lot from people’s missteps in business and successes in business. But we also do a lot of connecting the entrepreneurs into that corporate ecosystem that Tom mentioned to other mentors, to investors as we had on the panel of judges yesterday. By doing so, they get a lot more feedback than they could even know what to do with. But it helps them to build sustainable businesses that meet market needs and not just spend their time in a silo building something that ultimately the market doesn’t want.

Helping Entrepreneurs Prepare for Success and Overcome Pitfalls

Joe Coldebella:

Yeah. It was funny. Eva Doss asked a question that brought a little fire. But you need to do that because the market is unforgiving. If it’s not right, it’s going to fail. So awesome job of selecting a good panel.

Rachel Newberry:

Yeah. So Eva Doss from The Launch Place was one of the judges. We also had Keith Daniel from Resilient Ventures and Ba b Etheridge from Banquet B. And you’re right. They bring those kinds of pointed questions, but they’re also judges like that, that have such expertise working with entrepreneurs and can flag things that the entrepreneur may not have considered yet. And so they can say that there’s this pitfall, or here’s this thing you’re going to have to figure out. The other big value of being in a network is you can kind of get some awareness of things that you haven’t considered yet.

Seizing Opportunities

Joe Coldebella:

And then what type of feedback did you get from the folks doing the presentation? I know that you brought some folks in at the last minute, and I thought they did a phenomenal job for folks that were basically like, “Hey, ready, set, go.” Did you get any feedback from those guys?

Rachel Newberry:

Yeah. I mean, that’s part of the startup journey is just taking advantage of opportunities that pop up. So, yes, we had a couple of our alumni from the Ride Accelerator Program join us from the Wilmington area. And they were able to just access an audience that they hadn’t had access to before and get some experience with pitching, which is always great. Everyone that pitched yesterday had great things to say about the experience. They loved the energy from the audience, and they loved connecting with folks at the GigEast Summit. And for a few of them, it was their first time really pitching their business in front of an audience. So it was a great learning experience.

Tom Snyder:

Now they know they can do it.

From Startup to Success Story

Joe Coldebella:

Right. That’s great. I believe you had a graduate, or I don’t know if you would call them a graduate. But you had someone speak from Trakid.

Rachel Newberry:

Yeah. Brandon Kashani joined us yesterday, the founder of Trakid. Trakid came through the very first accelerator cohort that we hosted in the Wilson community. And he has done several pivots to the business. He’s grown his team and has investors that he’s working with. He’s secured pilot partners and customers. So he’s really grown in the past few years. It was great to hear him share his story and kind of have that full-circle moment. He came through a Wilson cohort. He pitched at the summit last year and won, and now he was back kind of telling the continued story of Trakid’s growth.

How Founders Roundtable Inspires Success Stories in Under-Resourced Communities

Tom Snyder:

I think it’s important. We run a series that we call Founders Roundtable, where we try to bring back founders from previous cohorts of the program, we call them alumni, from the program and help them to meet each other and see things. And sometimes people, particularly in under-resourced areas or places that don’t have lots of incubators and accelerators and investors and all that, they’ll have a little bit of an imagination problem. They might not be able to see themselves in the same way that they picture somebody in Silicon Valley or in New York City or in London or somewhere.

But the reality is that there are folks all over that are raising millions of dollars for their startup. And so to be able to bring examples of folks that have been on this journey that have cleared some hurdles, they’ve had some setbacks, but then ultimately have had big successes. To be able to show that to an audience, like here in Wilson, and people start to believe that they can do that too. And it really creates a snowball effect that can grow very quickly.

Navigating Setbacks and Pivots During the Pandemic with Resilience and Support

Joe Coldebella:

Yeah. And you know what I really liked about his talk is that he was super honest in terms of how he was really down. You know he had a great idea, and then suddenly, he gets hit in the face with the pandemic. And that’s a knockout blow there. And you’re on the canvas and terms of just getting up. It is definitely not easy. So it’s also probably great that he had folks like yourselves to lean on, and that’s part of the journey as well.

Rachel Newberry:

Absolutely. Thom Ruhe from NC Idea has this great saying that entrepreneurs are the economic first responders. So when the pandemic hit, we knew that entrepreneurs needed a little bit of extra support, but that they were going to be the ones that are resilient and still driving business, solving problems in the midst of a global crisis. So in the case of Brandon’s company, their initial customer segment was amusement parks, and they had found a first customer and were ready to pilot their technology with this amusement park and Covid hit. And so they had to pivot, but he did so successfully. So it’s a fun story now, even though of course it was very a difficult, very trying time, but we were there to kind of provide a support network.

Unlocking the Potential of IoT

Joe Coldebella:

Yeah, that’s great. You know, then the door closes, you have got to look for the window. You have got to figure it out.

The RAP event was phenomenal, but you guys are doing a lot of other things as well. Like, you have an IoT accelerator program. Could you sort of unpack that for me?

Tom Snyder:

Yeah, so RAP is the accelerator program, but a lot of people don’t maybe think of IoT in the way that we do. For those who maybe don’t know, IoT is the acronym for the Internet of Things. And when the term came out really in the public eye, people fixated on the “T” on the “thing”. They thought that it was about devices that have sensors in them and have batteries and they connect back to the internet and provide data and so on.

But really what IoT is about, in my view, is this kind of precursor to something bigger in the way that the worldwide web was a precursor to the internet. At first, we thought a few connected computers were really cool. We didn’t at that time picture that it was going to do Spotify, or it was going to create all these amazing kinds of applications and new business models, and so on.

Well, IoT is the same way. IoT is about going from archived and web-called information that’s at our fingertips through browsers and through mobile phones and devices to real-time data. And the “thing” is where the sensor is usually put and where a lot of that data comes from, but there are lots of other data sources. And when you can start to automate that data, you can wear a wearable and immediately know if there’s a health change if you’re monitoring your health 24/7. You can use it to automate transportation systems and self-driving drones and cars and things. You can use it to automate energy grids and route power automatically as needed when there are outages in the grid.

And so this idea of automation through analytics, AI, and machine learning automation of visualizing data through augmented and virtual reality, those are all the things that we think of as IoT, anything that’s using data in real-time across any industry. And that’s really what RAP is all about, is helping people take advantage of that opportunity while also realizing you’ve got to run a good business.

Adapting to the Virtual Era

Joe Coldebella:

Sure. Thanks for that because when people hear the phrase “Internet of things”, people are like, “Well, where are the things?” But they don’t understand, or maybe we do. It’s slow; it’s steady; it’s happening, right? And it’s not exactly a light switch that you can turn on. It’s a slow process; it’s a slow burn.

Tom Snyder:

No question. It is without any question the next 20 to 30 years of the economy.

Joe Coldebella:

Right. So then you’ve got Riot Studios. So what exactly is that?

Tom Snyder:

So during the pandemic, obviously everything locked down. One of the things that we do is run on the order of 75, 80 events per year. Well, suddenly we can’t run events in the same way that Brandon could no longer go out to amusement parks and do his product. We had to figure out how to still engage our audience, still bring people together, create serendipity through connections and things. And so Riot Studios was kind of how we had a little bit of fun by taking everything virtually.

We launched a podcast we call the Riot Underground. You can probably find it anywhere that you can find the Broadband Bunch podcast. Feel free to look us up. We started recording founder stories and other kinds of things. To this date, we are doing it every single week. We now do a webinar on some kind of technology or business topic. It’s essentially what used to be the lunch and learn where everybody got together in a room and ate a box lunch. Well, we still do that from time to time. Now, you have got to bring your own lunch, but you can do it from the comfort of your own home.

Driving Public Sector Innovation

Joe Coldebella:

Yeah. As someone who tries to put out two episodes a week, it’s a lot of work.

This has been a phenomenal visit. Is there anything that you’d like to share with the audience that we haven’t covered?

Tom Snyder:

One of the things that I’m really excited about right now is that we right now have our third municipal government team in our startup accelerator. Which I think is really cool. Sorry, government, big tech beat you. We did have some multi-billion-dollar companies that put corporate innovation teams in the program first. And that’s a lot of fun as well. But I think it’s fascinating as we look at, you know, the government sector needs to innovate just like the private sector does. We can’t continue to provide services for our residents in the same way that we did before. Technologies can allow us to do things, you know, better and better and, and be better run communities no matter the size of your community. But a lot of the smaller communities don’t necessarily have huge IT teams.

They don’t have all the tools and resources to do everything themselves. And so it’s been a lot of fun for us to start to work very closely with government partners to figure out how to do the right public-private partnerships. The company’s going to make a buy analysis. The government needs to figure out the same thing. What do they architect; what do they own? What do they maintain? Where do they partner? And how do they leverage technology just to make the communities we live in better communities? Bringing that entrepreneurial mindset into a sector that most people think of as slow and risk-averse has been amazing. But we’re seeing more and more interest in that area, and we look forward to helping as many people as we can.

Connecting with Riot

Joe Coldebella

Awesome. This has been a phenomenal visit. If folks want to learn more about your organization, where can they go?

Rachel Newberry:

They can go to riot.org. That’s our website where they can see all the different things that we do and connect with us. And we always have events that are free and open to the public. We’re running startup accelerators all the time that folks can apply to if they’re working on a new business. So you can find our events on Meetup, and you can certainly reach out to Tom or me.

Joe Coldebella:

Awesome. Thank you so very much for putting on the event yesterday and also for being a guest on the broadband bunch.

Rachel Newberry:

Yes. A lot of fun.

Tom Snyder:

Yeah. Thanks for having us. We really had a good time.

Joe Coldebella:

All right. That’s going to wrap up this episode of The Broadband Bunch. Until next time, we’ll see you later.

© 2023 Enhanced Telecommunications.

About the Author

Priscilla Berarducci - Sales and Marketing Coordinator

Priscilla manages digital content and supports sales/marketing efforts for ETI. She also serves as brand manager for the Broadband Bunch podcast where she books industry professionals who want to share their broadband stories.