Angels Visit Eugene

Angels recently visited downtown Eugene.

They didn’t leave fairy dust to fill the pits. That was drywall dust and other rubble being torn out of the Centre Court Building’s interior. But the angels did bring money. Fairy dust stopped being the currency of choice centuries ago. Gold dustings are much to be preferred. The coin of the realm is now coin.

John Sechrest founded the Willamette Angel Conference last year. He wanted to connect what he calls our innovation economy with local investors and business mavens. In his own words:

“We have close to a million people in the fifty miles around Corvallis. If the Willamette region can come together around the local economy, we can create stability and prosperity that would be significant.

With our two universities, we have a lot of energy that is focused on innovation. However, we have not built the entrepreneurial culture that will allow us to grow the skills and resources to make it possible to effectively commercialize that innovation.

The end result is that the good ideas get sucked out of our local region and commercialized  elsewhere. That is like spending a lot of work to plow the fields, plant the wheat, but we don’t have a combine, so we let others harvest the crop. As a result , we export our economic resources out of the region.”

“Buy local” is only a slogan if the products being sold came from elsewhere. The angels came to fix that.

They heard pitches from entrepreneurs from across the Willamette Valley. One left with a stockingful of money.

Angel investors are flying all the time, looking for a concept or a product that’s about to take off. They provide some of what the originator still lacks. Sometimes it’s new money that isn’t already spoken for. Other times it’s the wisdom that comes only with experience. Always significant is the networking with other entrepreneurs.

If the angels can add just the right mix of these, then a promising business that is toiling in the trenches can find itself soon aloft. And once that happens, the sky’s the limit.

I’ve written recently that Eugene needs a more explicit strategy for fostering start-ups. But a city filled with entrepreneurs, as fun as that sounds, will not necessarily produce robust economic development. Not everyone wants to start their own business. Some would prefer a paycheck — a job.

Cue the angels.

Angels help entrepreneurs build their ideas into full-fledged companies. It’s one thing to start a business. It’s another to run a company. The former can surely keep you busy. But the latter requires others to accompany the owner in his or her busy-ness. That accompaniment is what what we call jobs.

Eugene has a local resource for growing to that next step, but the business development people can be forgiven for overlooking them. They operate in a different field entirely, though the skill sets required are remarkably similar.

John Sechrest, meet Minalee Saks.

Saks is a social entrepreneur. She started the nonprofit organization Birth To Three in Eugene decades ago. Birth To Three is now an international concern, still headquartered in Eugene. In her own words:

“We started BT3 because you prepare for months to have a baby, go to doctor visits, childbirth preparation classes, learn all about labor and delivery, and it’s over in about a day.

And then comes the part —parenting — that lasts the rest of your life. Nobody is born knowing how to be a parent. Yet it’s probably the most important role any of us will ever have. Parenting used to be learned from extended family, when people usually stayed in the same communities they grew up. They had grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters around to help.  It’s a whole different story now — isolation, with powerful stressors, like the economy and needing to work, and very little support.  And now we know that the earliest years are the time the brain develops the fastest, and parents have the biggest influence on how well the child will do in life.”

Birth to Three facilitates peer-to-peer learning. Once parents learn they aren’t the only one facing certain fears, then coping and learning become more possible. Supporting others helps parents strengthen themselves.

The same goes for entrepreneurs.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a weekly column for The Register-Guard. He started two businesses in Eugene. He blogs at www.dksez.com.