About a year ago, more than 200 members of the Treasure Valley’s tech and startup scene packed into Trailhead to see a kingmaker. As managing partner at Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, speaker Scott Kupor is part of a firm that invested more than $4 billion in tech companies in 2014, according to the Wall Street Journal. For the fledgling startup founders in the audience, Kupor was one of the better people in the world to corner with an elevator pitch.
Kupor shared the small stage with Jess Whiting, the founder of the event’s organizer, the Boise chapter of StartUp Grind. Whiting, a Silicon Valley native, started the chapter to help the Treasure Valley’s entrepreneur scene.
StartUp Grind Boise has brought in speakers including Kupor; Ryan DeLuca, founder and former CEO of Bodybuilding.com; George Mulhern, CEO of Cradlepoint; and Mark Solon, a Boisean who is now managing partner of TechStars, a Colorado startup accelerator and investor.
Whiting, a volunteer, spends her time working with startups when she’s not with her daughters, ages 6 and 11, or working on her MBA from Brigham Young University. Her husband, Hal Whiting, is program manager of executive coaching and assessment for Hewlett Packard Enterprise. The family lives in Meridian.
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Q: How did you get involved in the startup world?
A: I got started in venture capital around 14 when I was working for my dad’s VC, Dominion Ventures, in the Bay Area. I’d take the BART [Bay Area Rapid Transit] into the city. None of my friends had jobs.
Q: You earned your undergraduate degree in marketing and advertising at BYU. Where did that path take you?
A: I started working for some startups, but I took more of an international marketing route, doing telecommunications infrastructure. I was part of the team that first put texting in cell phones at Ericsson Wireless. We would text as a team, and we all thought it was great, but we didn’t know how big texting would be. We just thought it was cool, but we never thought it would be what it is today.
Q: What brought your family to Meridian six years ago?
A: My husband started working for HP. We were supposed to be here for two years before they moved us back to Palo Alto. We ended up loving it.
Q: It sounds like you weren’t excited about the move at first.
A: I’d driven through Idaho, but I’d never been here. I didn’t have a business contact in the entire state. I was seven months pregnant at the time, and I did the stay-at-home mom thing. There isn’t a lot of international marketing here, so when I decided to stay, I looked for things to do.
Q: What led to creating StartUp Grind Boise?
A: I started hearing from the tech community that their No. 1 need is access to capital. I thought, “That’s easy.” So I called up a few venture capitalists in the Bay Area and asked, if we put together a demo day or a ski day, if they’d come out. They said yes, so in one day, I had Sequoia [Capital] and other people ready to come.
Q: That was before you formally started StartUp Grind two years ago. What spurred that?
A: I went to a StartUp Grind event in Palo Alto. It was cold pizza, sitting next to powerful people and CEOs, all very casual. I loved it. When I talked to [StartUp Grind CEO] Derek Anderson, he said Boise was on his whiteboard. At the time, StartUp Grind was in cities like San Francisco, Mexico City, Washington D.C., London, New York. I was really impressed Boise was a place they’d identified.
Q: I’m told you’ve got a contact list that would make most entrepreneurs drool. How does that play out in terms of Idaho companies getting the ear of Silicon Valley?
A: Relationships are very fragile. You want to be sure to vet startups, to make sure they are quality. Last October, I took 15 founders out to Silicon Valley for a three-day excursion. We had the big-box seats at the [Golden State] Warriors game where we had investors sitting with CEOs and Apple and Google employees. We had them all mix. I vetted it very carefully.
You’ll find a lot of the top investors will only invest in the Valley. That trend seems to be changing, which is nice for Boise, because we don’t’ have a venture capital [firm] here. It’s hard to raise because we don’t have boots on the ground. Not only does a Boise company have to sell itself, it has to sell why you’d invest in Boise. It’s a double effort as you’re fund-raising.
Q: Do you see evidence that the Valley’s tech scene is growing?
A: There’s a personality in Boise. You can feel it. When you go Downtown, there’s vibrancy. There’s creativity. A lot of people who have been CEOs of companies in Silicon Valley are starting to move here. It’s kind of a hidden gem. You start to find these people, and it’s almost like you have to discover that there’s this quality and potential.
Q: What do you do for fun?
A: I love skiing, though I’ve only been able to go about twice a week. We do Bogus because it’s quick. We go up for my daughter’s ski races. That’s one thing in you don’t have in the Bay Area: You can’t zip up to the hill after work. It’s been fun family time for us.
Q: Are there any mentor figures that either you look up to or that you refer others to?
A: George Mulhern (Cradlepoint CEO) is somebody I go to. I’ll often text Mark Solon. He’s seen a lot all around the world, and he has a special place in his heart for Boise. He gives great advice.
Q: In your first StartUp Grind event, Ryan DeLuca talked about the shortage of tech talent in the Valley. What can Idaho do to relieve that shortage?
A: In terms of engineering and computer sciences, which is our biggest focus, we’d like to see a larger pipeline. Some universities, like University of Idaho up north and Brigham Young University - Idaho, are doing really well with their engineering and computer-science pipeline. But the BYU-I students tend to go to Utah, and the U of I students tend to go to Washington, just because of their geographic locations. That’s something we’d love to change, and see more of the talent stay here. I’d love to see more [developer] schools start up.