How I learned that anything is possible, if you are willing to take the leap!
When I took my first leap off the academic high-rise and into the startup world’s bright but murky ecosystem, I really had no idea what to expect. Something was clear straight from the start, there is a lot of opportunity for connection and support, if you are willing to put yourself out there in new and diverse situations, a lot! Since launching Visible Network Labs in March, our team has gone through what might feel like startup whiplash – launching, then gingerly stepping out onto the startup stage, and getting a big warm hug filled with mentorship and intense learning, when we got the amazing opportunity to participate in the Boomtown Accelerator (a whole different blog!) which took us straight to the Boulder Theater stage! Shortly after, we applied in the summer of 2018 to the Fight Back Foundation’s startup incubator. Startup incubators are short-term support programs that offer intense mentoring by experts and other resources for a small group of startup companies.
In October, we found out we were accepted along with 12 organizations who were invited to participate and compete in a pitch competition under the leadership of founder Heidi Ganahl. The task – three intense days of work ending with a 3 minute pitch to win $10K and become a Fight Back Fellow. This is not an experience we get much as professors walking the halls of our universities, but here in startup land, this is just another way to blow up ideas, offer support, and have fun doing it! Our team was all in! While Boomtown gave us a three month intensive on how to launch a startup, the FBF took us on a three day roller coaster of deep dives, big drops, and a lot of high fives along the way.
Here’s what that looked like – show up on Friday at 5pm, and mingle with a small yet mighty group of people who collectively had one thing in common – we are all working hard to make lives better for kids in Colorado. The first three people I met were three high schoolers (yes, I said high school kids!) who have started their own organization inside their high school to give other kids a safe place (Oasis) to talk about mental health. I know what you are thinking – they are the ones to beat, right?!?!? But to my left were two moms working hard to protect kids from harmful content on the web, and to my right was a woman who is building her own ecosystem of support for foster families. And in between were a whole bunch of others who were thinking about how to build more inclusive opportunities for kids of color in schools, support new moms, fight injustice in the courts, connect kids with career opportunities, and equalize opportunities for working parents.
And there was us – building tools to give new voice to kids for talking about their mental and behavioral health needs, using technology and gamification to bring the difficult space of talking about hard things, into their comfort zones of tablets and phones. But that get to know you reception was just the calm before the rush! 6pm – first pitch, 7pm set out your big goals, 8pm go home and rest. 9am map out your message, 10am plan your strategy, 11am work on your pitch, 1pm work on your slide deck, 2:30pm stand up and give your pitch again, 3pm get your financial plan together, 4pm nail down your social marketing, 5pm go home and practice like crazy, oh wait, I mean rest…9am stand up and do your pitch to a panel of experts and get feedback (ackk!), 12pm practice, work on your deck, eat, nap, tour the stage, high five a few people, have a few heart-to-hearts, 5pm welcome your friends and family, 6pm hit the stage!
Two hours later and a lot of nerves released, we waited while the judges voted. They came back and I am very proud to say that Visible Network Labs was a judges pick. Three organizations were picked as winners and we were one of them. Given the competition, this was truly a shock, and I am still going between pride and guilt because everyone’s ideas and projects are just SO GOOD! We were so honored to be a part of this event and to be a Fight Back Fellow.
A Few Takeaways…
So now that we are on the other side of this event, there are a few things we want to share about this experience that we hope will encourage others to take the leap.
1) It might not be obvious that you fit in and you might wonder if you should even try, and you might have just spent 15 years on a totally different path, but do not hesitate even one more second…jump, leap, dance, bungee, climb, claw your way there, but go forward. Our team is still teetering between working at a university and launching a data science technology startup. It is not a known, well-understood, or even comfortable place. But we are doing it…because we can, because it’s fun, and because we believe! You can do it too. At the FBF, we were all welcomed, even though it seemed that no one had a traditional path to entrepreneurship. Heidi’s only rule for us -encourage each other, bring the best out in everyone, and have fun. She set the tone early on that age, gender, race, nor experience was the bar we were setting for each other – simply to bring your best idea and proudly shout it out from the rooftops. We all fit in, because there was no “in” – we were all just allowed to be us.
2) People are doing really really cool stuff and we all need help and support. At the FBF incubator, we were surrounded by a lot of people who had ideas that were basically on the back of a napkin, but who stood up in front of hundreds of people and spoke with confidence about what they believed they were capable of and the impact they are making. I have rarely been so in awe of a group of people before and whenever I’m worried that I can’t do this, I am going to remember this group of wonderful people who did not hesitate. If they can do it, so can we!
3) Lastly, you can accomplish an enormous amount in three intense days. That schedule I listed above – it sounds crazy. I did not add that the venue was almost an hour away and it snowed that weekend! Yet, in short 1-2 hour sessions, our team made more progress than we had in months. Being forced to produce quickly and with an energetic focused curriculum was amazing. There was little room to overthink anything. We went with our guts, our passion, and our deep knowledge of our topic areas. I often wondered during those three days if everyone had some kind of prep handbook that I missed out on – everyone was so professional and completely successful. However, I think that under strong leadership, given the tools you need, with a whole host of encouragement, and an unwavering desire to see your idea come to fruition –anything is possible.
We are so grateful for the experience we had at the FBF startup incubator. Heide and her team are amazing and we are about 10 paces ahead of where we only imaged we could be, thanks to that experience, those people, and a whole lot of coffee! You can check out our pitch in this video, if you want to see my 9 year Olivia Snow Varda make an appearance (it’s too bad the Q&A wasn’t recorded – she was a Rockstar answering questions!).
May 18th, 2020 - Denver, Colorado
About the Author: Dr. Danielle Varda
CEO, Founder, Professor, & Mother of Three Spirited Girls
Danielle is a scientist turned start-up founder, leading Visible Network Labs as CEO. Her combination of 20 years as a network scientist studying social connectedness and health, published author, 12 years as a tenured professor at the University of CO Denver, and her successful launch and scaling of the Center on Network Science came together in one big idea to start VNL. She is an entrepreneur, technologist, network scientist, fundraiser, and mother to three spirited girls. Her calling came when she realized her unique ability to develop technology solutions bridge complex systems science with everyday applications in communities, organizations, and business. She is a nationally known expert and keynote speaker on applied network science, with specific expertise in health system, public health system, entrepreneurial ecosystems, and educational system approaches. Danielle has published over 30 peer-reviewed articles on networks and their impact on health, well-being, and economic outcomes. Danielle leads VNL’s strategic partnership approach, is the company’s lead fundraiser, and has a vision for how to utilize network science to solve our most pressing and intractable problems.
In addition to her leading VNL, she is also an Associate Professor at the School of Public Affairs, University of Colorado Denver where she is Co-Director of the Center on Network Science, Director of the Nonprofit Concentration in the MPA program, and Advisor to the Dual MPA-MPH Degree. Additionally, she holds a secondary appointment in the Colorado School of Public Health, Department of Health Systems, Management, and Policy. She also has a courtesy Associate Professor appointment in the School of Information Sciences at the University of CO Boulder.