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Untold Innovation Stories: Wendy Lea

Untold Innovation: A few minutes with Wendy Lea

By: Dani Clark

This year at Untold Content, we’re focusing on stories of Untold Innovation. As a firm committed to innovation storytelling from thought leaders across organizations and sectors, we have embarked on a journey to uncover stories of innovative thinking that are galvanizing change and growth in four main industries: tech, medical, science and human impact. This first quarter(and a little more due to amazing responses), we’re focused on the tech sector. We asked you to nominate thought leaders in your field who are driving innovation, and you delivered!

This month, we’re sharing the story of Wendy Lea, Techstars Board Director and Former CEO of Cintrifuse. This interview focuses on her innovative work with Cintrifuse, a public-private partnership that enables high-growth startups to prosper in Cincinnati. With her entrepreneurial and industry experience, Wendy led the charge toward economic vibrancy by building a blueprint for startup success and establishing Cincinnati as the number one innovation hub in the Midwest.

So, buckle up and get ready for the next few minutes of our interview with Innovator of the Month, Wendy Lea.

P.S. Keep sending in those nominations of others for us to highlight in our Untold Innovation series. You can complete our nomination form online or email us with their information.

Wendy Lea‘s Innovation Story

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Former CEO of Cintrifuse, current board leader of Techstars, entrepreneur, mentor, and community steward, Wendy is well-versed in the role technology innovation plays in the growth and efficiency of corporates and in the economic impact of entrepreneurship in states and regions. From implementing “go to market” solutions to the largest tech companies in the world, diving into the startup space as a CEO, investor, and mentor, to forging public-private partnerships, Wendy is uniquely positioned to build innovation economy.

UC: What is your field of specialty?

WL: I specialize in technology, and more specifically, innovation around economic vibrance.

UC: Where does your personal and/or organizational innovation story begin?

WL: My fascination with innovation in economic development began with entrepreneurship when I co-founded OnTarget, which served Fortune 500 technology, telecommunications and services brands with highly targeted sales marketing processes and consulting. From there, I grew involved in mentoring and investing in other startups. This put me on the radar for Cintrifuse, a public-private partnership that enables high-growth startups to prosper in Cincinnati, where I was later recruited as CEO. A collective of CEOs gathered research that compared the greater Cincinnati region to its peer cities in the areas of density and maturity of startups, capital into the region, and overall corporate engagement. According to the research, Cincinnati didn’t rank so well, thus Cintrifuse was born. The goal was to condition the region for more startups and shift Cincinnati’s economic trajectory by becoming the number one innovation hub in the Midwest.

At the start, I was given some very interesting assets, including: the fund of funds, which gave us connectivity to VCs that invest in early-stage startups, and our co-working space, Union Hall, which acted as a front door to entrepreneurship. The third asset we had to build on our own. With my team, we had to establish a blueprint of capabilities that would bring startups out of their homes to connect with investors, customers, and each other.

First, we needed to spread awareness and attract startups with our marketing initiative, StartUp Cincy. Then, within Cintrifuse, we built the system and workflow. This programmatic system was designed to deliver value to members of our startup community over the life cycle of their business. Now, Cintrifuse encourages startups to pace themselves and get smart. Whether through bootstrapping efforts or other investments, startups have to obtain funding and more than likely have to look into outsourcing financial advisors like these services provided by Early Growth or other similar companies, to ensure they stay within pace once the funding has been acquired. Then, when they are closer to enterprise-ready, they can offer their innovative solutions to large companies.

And here’s the truth of the matter: Over the dozen cities I’ve been to, before and after this experience, I’ve never seen a systematic, programmatic capability offered to startups. Ever. And now, Cincinnati has it.

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UC: What impact has your innovation had on your organization or the field at large?

WL: And so then the impact is easy, right? The impacts are reflected in the startup community, the density and maturity of those startups, their customer engagement, and capital into the region. When it comes to startup community building across the Midwest, we became very high profile. Our blueprint was recognized in Inc., magazine as the best model for startup success.

Maturity of Startups

Startup Maturity Graph Image
The metrics represented in the image above indicate the growth trajectory and maturity of startups in the Cincinnati startup community from 2014 – 2018.

Capital to Region

Capital to Region Graph
The metrics represented in the image above show the increase in capital to the region after Cintrifuse was founded in 2014 to 2018.

Corporate Engagement (Pilots)

Cintrifuse Pilots Image
The image above shows the 138 pilots between 2014 -2018.

UC: What one piece of advice would you give to future innovators?

WL: My main advice is: Be bold with your vision. Be aggressive in finding leverage with process, people, and partnerships. Be consistent in communicating progress with all stakeholders–startups, corporates, investors, universities, and government organizations–and stay focused on the upside for all involved in the initiative.

When work gets hard, passion goes down and stress goes up–it’s difficult to maintain passion if you don’t see daily progress. The daily progress–that daily struggle is what the innovation game is all about. And if you don’t put KPIs or frequent measures of progress in place, the struggle will turn into a sinkhole. I want readers to walk away asking themselves: “What am I doing to focus on the upside everyday, every month, every quarter? And how am I measuring my progress and ability to execute?”

Thanks for reading Wendy’s innovation story. You can read more about our Untold Innovation Stories series in our Untold Innovation Stories kickoff post. And, don’t forget to nominate an innovator in your sector. Complete our online nomination form or email us.

UC: What role do you feel that storytelling plays in innovation? Could you describe the importance of storytelling to your own work?

Storytelling is important in tech innovation, and it looks a little different depending on the size of your company. Technology innovation entrepreneurs and startups–folks who don’t have a budget to go get a PR firm–have to do it on their own. Everyone is a publisher now. The nature of technology, and tools like blogging and LinkedIn, make it possible for individuals and startups alike to self-market, and there are plenty of useful guides on how to effectively market your business online available too. Corporations, on the other hand, can be high level and abstract when it comes to the structure and strategy for communicating their ideas. That’s not how startups talk about their own innovation–their storytelling is much more directed at gaining visibility for their category overall, like A.I. and health care, to their very specific product and service, or a compelling explanation of their own personal journey. It’s storytelling beyond a presentation of ideas.

*Interviews are not endorsements of individuals or businesses.

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