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RI PowerPlayer: Melissa Withers

Monday, February 10, 2014


Melissa Withers

Each week, GoLocal shines the spotlight on one individual who is making an impact on Rhode Island. This week, GoLocal sat down with Betaspring's Melissa Withers to talk about her work with the startup community -- and what the next set of elected officials need to consider.  

Welcome, Melissa!  First things first - tell us about your journey to Betaspring.  

I've been very lucky in my life and in my career to work with talented entrepreneurs. I've always been attracted to people who work on the edge, going all the way back to my first job working on the human genome sequence at MIT. But even when I was there, I knew I wanted to come back to Providence. I was lucky to find opportunities here to make it possible, including the work I've done over the last two and a half years at Betaspring. I've known Allan, Owen and Jack for a long time. Aside from being great friends, they have been incredible mentors for me across many roles and jobs. When they created Betaspring back in 2009, I was a huge fan. It took me a few years to get there, but I always knew we'd end up working on the same team.

What have been the most exciting success stories to date? Who should we keep an eye on in the near future?

In the last 12 months, the greater Providence startup community has raised $140 million in venture capital dollars, much of that from firms that work in top tier markets. That's huge for us. There are a lot of factors driving our community’s fundraising success--good ideas, good teams, good timing, and an equal measure of good luck. But one factor not to overlook is the overall increase in startup activity happening in the metro area. Critical mass is making a difference in encouraging new starts, enabling breakout successes, and creating a higher profile for startups of all kinds in the Providence metro. So while it's always tempting to pick one company or one story to celebrate, I think the news of this year is what the startup community is doing as a whole.

What is it you want to know from the candidates in terms of what they plan to do to support the state's start-up community

Startups are a true bright spot on our economic landscape. The upside is that helping startups is a cost effective endeavor, an especially important thing for a cash constrained Rhode Island.

Experimenting with startups is one place where a little can go a long way. One example: The Innovation Investment Program led by the City of Providence under Mayor Taveras used federal money to support startups that met a set of requirements. In 18 months, 31 startups participated in the program through Betaspring, a startup accelerator located in Providence. The City invested $1.6M in these companies and Betaspring invested $1.6M. Within this same 18 month period, these 31 companies raised an additional $4.6M in private capital.

The program added density to our startup community. The companies funded by the program settled 50+ talented entrepreneurs in Providence. They brought their families here, spend locally at stores and restaurants, and make innumerable contributions to our cultural and civic life. The startups were also a major driver in the launch of the Founders League, a startup support platform led by Betaspring, Brown University, URI, and the Providence Chamber of Commerce that is now home to 30+ startups.

Cities and economies that transform themselves find levers--like the IIP program--where small money has big impact. But finding those levers requires a willingness to experiment. We can't let the psychic scars of past failures fails diminish our willingness to experiment in smart and creative ways.

What needs to be done on the state-level, and what on the city-level?

I love the whole state of Rhode Island and I think every community has something special to contribute. I'm from Coventry and grew up on our coast, in our woods, and love raising my son here. But from an economic development standpoint, the city of Providence is our most important asset. Unfortunately, too many of our economic development policies are driven by constituency politics, rather than by data-driven methodologies. We give a little bit to everybody, and in doing so, often dilute our ability to make significant progress. I know why this is and sincerely appreciate the constraints elected leadership face. You have to keep your constituency happy. That said, you can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. And I think we've missed out on some big opportunities because we were afraid to do things that don't spread resources out "evenly."

What are your biggest obstacles to success?

The death of George Holland really broke me down. It was a stark reminder of the fundamental disparities that exist in our community and the generation of young people who we are leaving, abandoned in a world punctuated by poverty and violence. If we can't build a city where every kid gets a good education, where every child can be safe from gun violence, where kids like George can't escape, then we're sunk. The rest doesn't matter.

Take us through a day in your life.

I like to drive my kid to school. We listen to music and make plans for trips I know we may never take. That ritual sets the right tone for my days, which are really fun and busy. I work with startups, which means working with a very diverse group of people who are facing myriad challenges and opportunities. Sometimes it's like being on episode of Dr. Phil. Other days it's like being on Shark Tank. But mostly it's about helping people get done what no one else thinks can be done. It's a good life. When I get done with that, I like to run, especially around the City. Running with my friends, crisscrossing Providence on foot, has helped understand and appreciate my city. I eat a lot, so it also helps me from getting too fat.

Tell us something someone might not know about you.

I've been told that people think I'm too aggressive, that I'm really tough. I'm not. I'm a jelly roll who cries during commercials for the animal rescue league. Like most people, I defend my soft heart with a crunchy exterior. I have a suspicion this is why I didn't last very long in municipal politics.

Favorite RI Restaurants:

We have the BEST food in the world, but my favorite spot is Friday night dinners in Mat & Darlene's back yard with the kids, dogs and a fire. One of the few places I feel totally at ease and a beautiful example of how elegantly Providence offers up urban living.

If you could have dinner with anyone in the world today, who would it be?

Michelle Obama. I dig her. 


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