Business Elevated Podcast (Episode 53)
This podcast series features business and government leaders discussing what it’s like to live and work in the great state of Utah. This episode includes a conversation between Ryan Starks, managing director of Business Services at GOED, and Trent Christensen, CEO and president of VentureCapital.org.
Welcome to the Business Elevated Podcast, where we discuss what it’s like to live and work in the great state of Utah. Did you know Utah is frequently ranked the best state for business by Forbes? This podcast is a production of the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development. Thanks for joining the conversation.
Ryan Starks: (0:22) Welcome to the Business Elevated podcast. I’m Ryan Starks, managing director of Business Services at the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. Today, my guest is Trent Christensen, the CEO and president of VentureCapital.org. Trent, welcome to the show. How are you today?
Trent Christensen: (0:39) Doing very well, Ryan. Thank you. And thank you for having me. Appreciate it.
Ryan Starks: (0:43) We met a couple of weeks ago and became acquainted. And you recently took on a new position with VentureCapital.org, after the meeting, I just thought this is a guy that we’ve got to have on our podcast. So thanks for joining us.
Trent Christensen: (0:58) I appreciate it. And tomorrow marks one year for me in this position. I’m still new and still, in a lot of ways, finding my way, and I’m grateful for the work the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development does and all the work that you do in helping the economy and nonprofits like VentureCapital.org.
Ryan Starks: (1:16) Well, thank you. Our success is based on the participation and support of so many great partners. So thank you. You’re coming up on your one-year mark, which was Christmas Eve?
Trent Christensen: (1:27) That’s right. I remember last year we were saying, why don’t we just have you start at the beginning of January? I said, “Why don’t I get started on Monday last year?” I was excited to get into this position and get going.
I love the work they do. And I love the entrepreneurship community in Utah. So it was a good fit.
Ryan Starks: (1:46) That’s awesome. I know VentureCapital.org has a wonderful history and has done a lot of good things for Utahns, but let’s first start with Trent Christensen. Tell us a little bit about where you’re from and how you ended up becoming the CEO of VentureCapital.org?
Trent Christensen: (2:05) I grew up here. I was born in D.C., but I grew up here in Salt Lake City. I went to high school here, went to college at BYU, and then went to law school at BYU. In 2007, I had the opportunity to go work on the Romney campaign, ‘Romney For President,’ the first time he ran in the 2008 campaign, and it was a fantastic opportunity.
And on that campaign, I learned how to raise money. They put me on the fundraising team. I didn’t know a thing about it, and I had a lot of great lessons. I remember stuttering the first time I asked somebody for money. When that ended, I finished up my law degree. I was at a law firm in Boston, and the second Romney campaign came around, and I said, “Let’s let’s do it again.” and I got back on that campaign. During that campaign, my role expanded. I had about 30 states. I was in charge of all the fundraising inside those states. So you’ll learn a lot about every aspect of fundraising, from small-dollar to large-dollar, and everything in between. And that campaign didn’t end the way that we wanted to. And I just found that I enjoyed this. I enjoy helping a cause that I believe in. So I did a little bit more political work, but I also got started with nonprofits.
I helped raise money for nonprofits all across the country. And that led me here back to Utah. I worked with several nonprofits, and because of that work, I was asked to become the initial executive director of the Orrin Hatch Foundation. I’m so grateful for the work that Senator Hatch did in his 42 years back in D.C.
And through that work, I became acquainted with Scott Anderson at Zions Bank. Scott asked me to come work for him in their sponsorships department. Zions sponsors a lot of different things, but they have a specific budget for entrepreneurship-related activities. So you can imagine all the universities and what they do with entrepreneurship.
Many of the nonprofits in Utah, everything from VentureCapital.org or to the Suazo Business Center to Church & State. There are a lot of good organizations out there. And through that, I sat on the board of a couple of organizations and still do. But I became acquainted with VentureCapital.org, and they started looking for a new CEO at the end of 2019.
And my name came up, and they offered me the position. But that time at Zion’s was beneficial to know this ecosystem of entrepreneurship that we have in the state, and GOED is a big part of that. And it’s unique. It’s different from any other state in the country because of how collaborative it is. Everyone in the ecosystem wants the benefit and the success of everyone else in the ecosystem. It’s phenomenal.
And VentureCapital.org likes to think of ourselves as the hub of that ecosystem, helping all the other organizations and helping first-time entrepreneurs raise capital and grow their businesses. So that’s a little bit about me.
Ryan Starks: (4:45) What a great story. We’re glad to have you in place there at VentureCapital.org. And as I alluded to earlier, GOED has partnered with VentureCapital.org to help businesses grow over the years. And speaking of business, tell us how does VentureCapital.org help businesses grow? What’s the mission? How did it get started?
Trent Christensen: (5:05) In 1983, there was a professor at the University of Utah. His name was Wayne Brown, and he was a professor of business. He identified that first-time entrepreneurs have a difficult time. And the number one reason they fail at a rate of over 90% is a lack of access to capital.
And the second reason is the lack of access to mentoring. He devised a way to help entrepreneurs overcome what he called the valley of death. It helped them succeed as first-time entrepreneurs. The organization was renamed the Wayne Brown Institute after his death in 1985. The purpose of the organization is to help mentors find capital and mentorship. And what we do is if you’ve got some income and employees and are ready to grow a scalable business, VentureCapital.org can help.
We’re a nonprofit, so we don’t ask for fees upfront. We don’t currently take an equity stake in your business. And what we don’t ask entrepreneurs to move. Sometimes, you’ll see some of the accelerators out in California, or wherever, and you have to move out here. We encourage businesses to stay in Utah because if you want to work in Utah, you want your mentors to be in Utah. You want to understand this economy. You want your suppliers to understand it. We bring them in, and we have a network of about roughly 500 mentors. These are all volunteers here in the state, and that’s everyone from bankers to accountants, to lawyers, to other entrepreneurs, to accredited investors.
We typically have a deal flow of about 150 companies a year. And of those, we actively mentor about 70 of them. For the others, we offer advice. Maybe you need a business plan. Maybe you need to start a little earlier, but once they’re in a good place for us, we pair them with a mentor team of seven or eight mentors. The mentoring process lasts about eight weeks, depending on the company. At your first mentoring session, they pretend to be investors and ask to hear your pitch. Why do you want my money? And you give your pitch, and then they tear it down.
Ryan Starks: (7:23) Which is what a good mentor would do.
Trent Christensen: (7:25) Exactly. And over those eight weeks, they teach you how to pitch to investors. But to do that, you have to do a little bit of a deeper dive and know what the market looks like and who’s on your team. Why should I trust your team? You have to dive a little bit deeper into the business. It’s not just a matter of looking at the pitch deck. So over those eight weeks, these mentors will meet with these entrepreneurs once a week and get them prepared. So that’s teaching them to talk to investors.
But that doesn’t do any good unless they meet investors. We have several events throughout the year that culminate in two large events. For example, at our events, we’ll have what’s called a deal forum where you’ll have a panel. It’s not all investors, but some service providers, some investors, some entrepreneurs, members of our board, and you’ll give the pitch.
And it’s a safe environment. And let me tell you why that’s important. Sometimes if you make a pitch to an investor, and you blow it. You wouldn’t, but I would. Let’s just say I blow it in front of this investor; these investors talk to each other. And if six months down the road you’re pitching to another investor and they call up their friend and say, ”Hey, I’ve got this Ryan guy, and he’s got a business that… Oh, I saw that six months ago don’t even bother.”
So what is a safe environment? It’s where people pitch and say this didn’t work for me. Maybe try this, and you can craft it again in a live and safe environment. And you’ve got these mentors, and then you go back to your mentor team and tell them what you heard during the deal forum. So you go through these deal forums, and then we have what’s called an investor feedback session. It’s just open to the public. About 150 people came to our investor feedback session last year and listened to these pitches and asked questions. It’s one thing to teach someone how to give a pitch. It’s another thing to teach them how to answer the questions that come after the pitch. Maybe you get a question, and you never thought of that before. You learn the best way to answer a question for that investor.
So it helps you think on your feet. Those two events I was talking about are our Investors Choice conference and WeROC conference. Investors Choice is every year in February, we pack a ballroom full of roughly 150 investors. and it’s live.
Ryan Starks: (9:39) So these are real investors looking to park their capital somewhere.
Trent Christensen: (9:43) That’s right. And we usually have about 25 companies that present at ICC.
Last year, four of those companies got investment commitments right there at the conference. But in general, roughly 70% of the companies that pitch in ICC will raise capital by the end of that year. And it typically culminates at about $45 million that those companies will raise altogether by the end of that year.
Ryan Starks: (10:10) Wow. So how does a company then get selected for ICC? Is it a competitive process?
Trent Christensen: (10:16) Well, it all depends on the company. We’ll say, “This guy is listening to our feedback” Or, “This founder, she’s fantastic. She’s progressing, and she’s taking our feedback and incorporating it.” Or, this company is good, but they’re not quite ready yet.”
Maybe you don’t have a team yet. You say, “Well, I don’t have a team. It’s my brother-in-law and me.” And we’ll say, “Okay, your idea is awesome. You’re fantastic. Let’s hold you over until next year. We don’t want to put you in front of investors until you’re ready.”
It’s a combination of where those companies are in the process. Whether they’re listening and incorporating what we say and how well they feel about it. Because if they’re not comfortable with it, we’re not going to force them out. And so we take those 70 companies, and we boil it down to about 25 or 30 companies. So it can be a little competitive.
Ryan Starks: (11:06) Wow, fascinating. So are all these companies Utah-based, or can companies from surrounding states participate?
Trent Christensen: (11:12) Absolutely. This last conference in 2020 was right before the shutdown at the end of February. A little less than half of the companies were from Idaho, and we’re getting companies from California. Our investors are from all over the country. And it was one of the funny things about the pandemic. We tried to move a little bit of what we do online in this type of format and just didn’t find a market for it previous to 2020. And all of a sudden, people are used to it now. So the attendance at our deal forums has gone up. We’ve gotten more interest from companies around the country and a lot more interest from investors from around the country.
Ryan Starks: (11:54) Do other states have similar models where they’re working with companies and providing mentors? Or is this something unique to Utah?
Trent Christensen: (12:02) It’s unique to Utah because we’re the only nonprofit that does it. But it’s also unique to Utah because of GOED. You mentioned that we’ve partnered in the past. In the 1980s and the 1990s this organization had a lot of requests from other states like Arizona, Hawaii, Texas, Florida to present on how we do what we do. And we would do it. And then some for-profit accelerators would start, or something nonprofit would start. But it wouldn’t have the accompanying state involvement. And it’s just not the same. The mentor base that we have in Utah. Where else in the country could you get 500 people that would be willing to give an hour of their time every week for eight weeks? And several of them do it many times a year. What we’ve done is unique. It is not just because of us, but because of the people in the state government we have here.
Ryan Starks: (12:50) Wow. Are you actively looking for mentors, or do they just find you?
Trent Christensen: (12:55) No, we love it. I remember I pitched you, Ryan, on one of our mentor teams. We want anybody that A) is interested in helping this community, B) is interested in entrepreneurship, and C) has something to share. A lot of the time, what we find is these mentors make fantastic connections among the other mentors. Let’s say you’re a young lawyer, and you’re trying to build a book of business. And all of a sudden, you’re on a mentor team with this banker, and that accountant, and some investors, and some entrepreneurs, People are getting to know your name. They see it as an appropriate business development tool, and they’re giving back to the community and to these young entrepreneurs.
Ryan Starks: (13:35) Makes sense. And you’re right; I think that’s just part of Utah’s richness is the quality and the caliber of our mentors and people that want to give back. You’ve heard this statistic that Utah’s ranked number one year-in and year-out for volunteerism. I think it’s just part of our beehive DNA.
Trent Christensen: (13:52) That’s right!
Ryan Starks: (13:53) That’s great. Let’s talk about some of the other programs that VentureCapital.org sponsors. So I know you do some seminars. We talked about that. What does 2021 look like? Do you think mostly virtual? Do you think we’re going to start to phase back into in-person events and conferences?
Trent Christensen: (14:12) If 2020 taught me anything, it’s to not predict anything. I’m not sure I can tell you what will happen, but I get a sense that we’re going to start to phase back in. I think a virtual component to these events is going to be sort of the normal process of life for a long time.
In September of last year, at our WeROC conference. WeROC stands for Women Entrepreneurs Realizing Opportunities for Capital; it’s the culminating event of our women’s initiative. It was September, and Utah was right in the middle between yellow and orange in the state’s color-coded system. We decided to have a hybrid conference. I think we were one of the first to do it. And so we held it at a fantastic center in Draper. And it had a live component. And then anybody that wanted to participate virtually, there was an app where they could bounce back and forth between rooms and participate virtually.
And it was successful. People still wore the mask and were socially distanced. That kind of technology, and a hybrid conference, I think is what you’re going to see a lot of moving forward. Even as we move completely out of the pandemic, there might be many people who have pre-existing conditions. So I think it’s something that people are going to adapt to. And you see that in the technology market. A lot of apps are coming out for that, and that’s what we’re planning on doing. We’re moving ahead with preparations for the Investors Choice conference. Again, it’s always in February, and looking to do it as a hybrid conference.
Ryan Starks: (15:38) That’s so exciting. I can’t wait for both events. What about some kind of specialty or niche support for groups, like veterans or women or minorities that are trying to get into this entrepreneurship scene? What resources do you have for them?
Trent Christensen: (15:57) I’m glad you asked. Entrepreneurs are a unique set of individuals, and they face unique challenges. Women entrepreneurs, minority entrepreneurs, veteran entrepreneurs face even higher barriers to entry into the market. That’s a big part of our mission to help women, minorities, and veterans. And so, our women’s initiative culminates with WeROC.Over the last couple of years, only 2.6% of the money went to women entrepreneurs.
Ryan Starks: (16:35) Wow.
Trent Christensen: (16:36) And that’s unbelievable when you look at the success rate of women entrepreneurs, compared to organizations founded or led by men or have all men board of directors. But when you compare the two, women-led, women-founded companies far and above are their counterparts.
Ryan Starks: (16:51) Well, not surprising, is it?
Trent Christensen: (16:52) Exactly. WeROC started as an educational tool to help women understand what resources are available. What networks are available? And what we found is so many of our women entrepreneurs have fantastic companies. We created WeROC, and now it has its pitch event, similar to ICC investors come and they listen to these companies do their pitch.
It’s becoming very successful. It’s quickly becoming our most popular program. The attendance is exponentially growing, and the programming for women entrepreneurs we’ve integrated into everything we do. There are seminars on how to raise money, and all the issues that women face.
What’s a good work-life balance, not just generally, but also for women? We integrated it all the way through. And we’ve started to do that now with our minorities and our veterans’ group. In fact, at this last WeROC, one of our keynote speakers was a woman named Cheryl Grant, who is African-American and lives in Oakland. I believe she was Miss Olympia in 1986. And it was just so interesting because she’s a woman, but she also understands the barriers to entry that minorities have. And she was saying to us, “Trent, you have to bring this to Oakland. You have to bring this to the minority population.” We agreed it’s exactly what we want to do. It fulfilled that dream, that mission we have to expand.
We’re always going to be a Utah organization, but we’re going to expand past that and find stronger, deeper pockets of minority entrepreneurs that we can help. And recently, with our veterans’ program, And then the minority program will also end up in a culminating event. And we’re building that out.
We recently partnered with two national veterans programs. One that’s based here in Utah is called Warriors Rising. They help veterans all across the country start their businesses and found they could help veterans get their business to a certain point. But then, when it came time to really go out and find investment capital, they plateaued a little bit. Well, that’s where we come in. We can help you get from that plateau and raise that kind of capital. And so they were excited about it. There’s also an organization called PenFed based in Washington, D.C. It started as a credit union, but now they have a fund to sponsor and invest in veterans. We’re looking for someone that could help veterans find that investment capital. So we’ve held several deal forums for veterans. And I’ll tell you; there’s something about a deal for them. That’s all veterans.The Marines, Navy, Army, all these people that are leading these businesses that have come from a veteran background.
You just want to say thank you for your service, and how can I help? This is the way that we want to help. We have those programs; we’re building them out. Our women’s program is much more advanced, and we’re hoping to use that model for our minority initiative and our veterans initiative.
Ryan Starks: (19:29) That’s wonderful. Well, kudos to your organization for recognizing those opportunities. Those are the types of people that are going to make a big difference.
Trent Christensen: (19:37) Right.
Ryan Starks: (19:38) What about somebody in high school or college that wants to get involved and wants to become that entrepreneur? Do you have any type of internships or resources available to help train these students? These future entrepreneurs?
Trent Christensen: (19:51) Absolutely. And I just have to mention again how amazing Utah is, based on that question. When I was at Zions working with the entrepreneurship sponsorships, we took part in the Utah Entrepreneurship Opportunity Quest. And they have that for high school students where you come with your business ideas, and they get ranked, and you can win money to help start your businesses.
Utah is the place to do that 100%. We have a program for college-age interns. Last year, we had 52 interns. Many of them minorities, most of them economically disadvantaged. We bring them into the system, and not all of them go on to start their own company, but all of them get a front-row view of what it’s like to talk to investors, how you grow a business. They learn the elements that investors are looking for. You get that front-row view into the entrance to help establish the mentor groups. They help run the mentor groups. And so they’re available, and they’re a part of every mentoring session.
So you hear all that advice for six to eight weeks. And then what we do is we love to partner with the universities, and they listen to these amazing ideas. We are the natural next step. We are the segue for these organizations as they come out of the universities and have these entrepreneurship programs. And as they come out and they grow and look for investment capital, send them our way. We’d love to have your interns and students with their ideas. We can help them get to the next level.
Ryan Starks: (21:22) Who are some of the universities you’re working with? How are you finding these students? Are there certain institutions that have entrepreneurship programs?
Trent Christensen: (21:31) All of the universities, every single one of them, in the state has an entrepreneurship program. Some of them are a little newer, like Snow College. But the great thing is that they’re also very complimentary of each other. Obviously, the University of Utah with the Lassonde program and what they’re doing BYU with the Collins Entrepreneurship Center. Utah State was one of the first schools; I think maybe the first school in the country that had a degree. It was a minor in entrepreneurship. But specifically, I would mention two programs.
Westminster has done phenomenal work in this area, and they are one of our champions when it comes to interns. They send us a lot of fantastic interns and students. They are a quality institution and program. All of the schools, Salt Lake Community College, Utah Valley University, all have outstanding programs. Dixie State, I know I’m going to leave one out, but they all have fantastic programs.
And also mentioned Boise State. Again, it’s not just Utah, but Boise State has been a big sponsor of what we do, and they send us a lot of interns. And as I mentioned, half of our companies last year that presented at ICC came from Idaho. And so to the degree that those universities get involved, you can just see how it spurs innovation and entrepreneurship. We’re able to build out those companies a little better.
Ryan Starks: (22:40) Wow, really impressive! I notice you didn’t say Weber State.
Trent Christensen: (22:45) Weber State.
Ryan Starks: (22:45) I bleed purple. We’ve got to put a plug in for a good old Weber State.
Trent Christensen: (22:51) Brandon Stoddard is the head of the program, and he was a big part of that. He was a CEO for a time here at VentureCapital.org. Shout out to Brandon Stoddard and Weber State. I can’t believe I forgot them. Please forgive me, but they’re amazing.
Ryan Starks: (23:03) That’s all right. You’re just saving the best for last.
Trent Christensen: (23:05) There you go.
Ryan Starks: (23:05) We all appreciate that.
Trent Christensen: (23:07) Very good.
Ryan Starks: (23:07) This has been awesome catching up with you. I would love to understand how somebody can find more information about VentureCapital.org? I guess you can’t make it any easier than including the URL and your organization’s name. But what advice would you give somebody looking for more info?
Trent Christensen: (23:23) VentureCapital.org. You can learn more information there. We are essentially an accelerator. If you need that kind of service, go to VentureCapital.org, you can look at how to get involved or donate. We’ve just rolled out a subscription program where anyone: investors, companies, can get online to find out about our subscription program. You can donate a certain level every month or make a one-time donation. And that helps foster entrepreneurship in the state, which then helps foster employment in the state. And it helps keep those companies here in the state. We’re involved in the rural communities and here along the Wasatch Front. This is a raise all boats kind of organization. You can find a lot of information at VentureCapital.org. You can also find the number and call me or call our COO, Peter Callister, and we can help get you involved and help get your business up and running.
Ryan Starks: (24:16) Well, that’s great. It sounds like a fantastic opportunity for both entrepreneurs, and those wanting to give back in the form of mentorship.
Trent Christensen: (24:24) Absolutely. We can’t say enough about our mentors. People who have this kind of expertise and are willing to spend the time giving it back to the people who are going to be the next generation. I want to say thank you to all our mentors, and please, if you’d like to mentor, we’d love to have you.
Ryan Starks: (24:39) Awesome. Well, Trent Christensen, CEO of VentureCapital.org. My name is Ryan Starks, managing director of business services at the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development. It’s been wonderful having you on with us today, Trent.
Trent Christensen: (24:52) I appreciate that. Thank you, Ryan. And thank you for everything that the Governor’s Office of Economic Development does for the state for our economy. We appreciate you guys. Thank you.
Ryan Starks: (25:00) It’s our pleasure. Thank you.
Thanks for listening to the Business Elevated podcast, a production of the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development. Listen to other episodes where you get your podcasts or at business.utah.gov.