Venture for America Brings a Socially-Conscious Entrepreneur Home

By and  |  September 12, 2013, 10:59 AM  |  Techonomy Exclusive

chelsea-1-600When Chelsea Koglmeier left Cincinnati after high school, she never thought she would return to live in her home city. But barely a year after college graduation, she’s back, working for a company that makes a mobile app for planning road trips. Koglmeier is a fellow at Venture for America, a program that places bright college grads at startups in struggling cities.

Techonomy spoke with Koglmeier about creating social impact, diving into startup culture, and seeing her home city in a new light.

What is your background, and how did you become interested in startups?

I grew up in the suburbs of Cincinnati, Ohio. I felt that it was a very homogenous upbringing. When I graduated from high school, I didn’t want to be here anymore. So I took a gap year and moved to Philadelphia, where I worked for an AmeriCorps program called City Year that provides tutoring, mentoring, and extracurricular activities in schools. It was one of the most defining years of my life. I then attended Duke University, where I studied public policy and documentary studies and continued to be socially oriented. I worked with kids who weren’t getting adequate educations; I worked with a microfinance organization in Uganda, and studied child malnutrition in Bolivia. I also helped build a nonprofit that offered business-training classes for Hispanic entrepreneurs in Durham, North Carolina. This made me realize that I liked growing companies and creating things that could impact people’s lives.

How did you end up back in Cincinnati?

When they added Cincinnati to the list of potential Venture for America cities, I was not interested in going back there. I wanted to continue to do new things. But when I got job offers in Cincinnati, Las Vegas, New Orleans, and Providence, I ended up choosing Cincinnati because I felt this pull back to the city. It was crazy, but I felt the need to come back.

I was offered a position at a startup accelerator called The Brandery, which brings in early-stage companies, gives them a small amount of seed investment, takes a chunk of equity, and puts them through a series of classes to get them ready for venture capital investment. I was one of two staff members running the day-to-day activities, from taking out the trash to writing grants, working with our companies, and engaging our venture capital partners.

Six months ago I was offered a job at Roadtrippers, one of The Brandery’s graduate companies. Venture for America was really supportive and flexible about the move, because their ultimate goals are to create jobs and give recent college grads powerful post-graduate opportunities. I’m better placed at Roadtrippers than I was at The Brandery.

Can you describe your current job?

Roadtrippers is a website and a mobile app that helps plan road trips and aggregates offbeat, local attractions along your route. The platform is navigation-based. You can say, “Hey, I’m going from Cincinnati to New Orleans, and I really like bed and breakfasts, I love to eat at diners, and I love hiking and Civil War history.” The app picks out all the options for those things along your route, and you can sift through them and generate an itinerary with turn-by-turn directions. I maintain our partnerships with tourism boards, large corporations, and brands. I am also the internal point person who makes sure all of the different pieces of our team puzzle are pointing toward the same goals. I have my hand in a lot of things, which is pretty wonderful.

What was it like moving back to Cincinnati?

I was surprised by how the downtown area is developing and progressing. Amazing historic buildings are being revamped, there are new restaurants popping up every month. It’s honestly a wonderful place to be a young person, and a wonderful place to grow a company, because the cost of living is so low.

Cincinnati is not having too hard of a time; there are nine Fortune 500 companies headquartered here. But it is a backwards place in some ways. There are a lot of strains of conservatism in all senses of the word, and there are still racial tensions and socioeconomic disparities along racial lines. That’s not what we’re directly addressing by building technology companies, but I think it plays into how we can turn Cincinnati into an economy of the future rather than a stagnant place.

What are your long-term goals?

My current plan is to stay with Roadtrippers after the VFA fellowship ends. We are growing insanely well, I helped build the company, and I love the team. My end goal is to start a company that is for-profit and has a social mission, because I’ve found that the nonprofit model is not sustainable. Why not create a company that can make money and solve social issues?

Venture for America CEO Andrew Yang will speak at the Sept. 17 Techonomy Detroit event.

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