Before the paddleboards are stored away in exchange for the skis, ThinkTanky sat down with serial entrepreneur, leader and former tech exec, Julie Harrelson of Cascade Angels.
Julie, thank you for taking the time to be interviewed, instead of being the one to interview others on your #julieselfie blog (startupbend.com). I am grateful to have this time to sit down and talk with you about current industry trends, Cascade Angels portfolio and your SUP “board meetings.” Also, it would be a missed opportunity to not discuss leadership and the role of entrepreneur relations.
Let’s provide a little context here. How did you get to NOW, including your time in Portland, of course?
Interestingly, we are sitting here together in August 2017, about four years to the date of when Cascade Angels came to fruition. Some local leaders who participated in the Bend Venture Conference (BVC) were interested in broadening investment opportunities and economic growth in Central Oregon and throughout Oregon as a year-round effort. I worked in tech and then as a corporate strategist and enjoyed living in Portland for many years. I was looking to expand my focus and life to include Bend. The team that envisioned Cascade Angels had an idea of how it could work and they needed someone to lead the charge. I interviewed and here we are – Cascade Angels is alive and well and working on its goals of a return for investors and a return for the community in terms of jobs both in Bend and across our state.
Cascade Angels’ invests in early stage companies from across many industries. As Cascade Angels was a startup venture in its own right, we needed not only to build the company from an idea to an operational venture, we needed to also build a foundation with the community.
When we started looking at national models for investing in early stage companies on a collaborative basis, Oregon Angel Fund in Portland was a clear established example. We saw the population increasing in Bend and wanted to provide opportunities for investors to support startup companies. We also wanted to provide Oregon and Pacific Northwest startups with increased access to capital and resources as well as support economic growth.
What did you discover during this building/startup stage that surprised you about working in Bend and the people who live and thrive here?
Many people who live in our community chose to live here. There’s a strong interest in giving back to the community. Part of the purpose of Cascade Angels is to increase Bend and Oregon’s economic diversity – a call to grow the tech and consumer products sectors to create more jobs and economic growth in general.
It’s important to us that we build our portfolio with the idea of supporting the entrepreneur. Even if we don’t fund an entrepreneurial venture, it’s our intention to have the founder(s) walk away stronger by reason of engaging the fund. That’s our way of giving back. In the past four years, we’ve grown our portfolio to include 6 Portland-based companies, 7-Bend based companies, 1-Salem based company, and 1 Eugene-based company across sectors. The average investment is between $100-200K and the companies we invest in are seeking anywhere from $500K to $2M.
From my perspective, in having watched you in a number of roles around Bend: EDCO Pub Talks and moderating BVC’s social impact competition, to name a few, you have a natural proclivity to support other people. I note that you have provided insight to many women in our community. Why is this?
At university, I played center defense in field hockey. This is a play-making position. You can move back towards the goal to defend or move forward to occasionally make a goal but generally, the center defense position sets up plays. To me, that’s the role of leadership: to set the conditions for success.
Regarding your comment about women, there are not a lot of women executives. We are lucky to live in Bend because there is a broad group of smart, supportive women from varying backgrounds. This group is powerful and engaged, and they are communicating, convening, solving problems, and consciously trying to change the landscape. I recently had the pleasure of getting to know Clella Thomas, who received this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award from the Bend Chamber of Commerce. Clella is an inspiration and has worked hard over the years to make Bend and Central Oregon a great place.
It feels collaborative and inspiring, would you agree?
I would and because of the size of our city and region, we aren’t as fragmented as we would be in a larger urban environment. That access to one another certainly plays a part in supporting this collaboration and momentum toward growth and empowerment in the region.
When you and I first sat down for coffee a couple of weeks ago, the first of many disappointing news articles had come from Silicon Valley and I told you I didn’t want to ask you how you felt about this as a woman…
OK, let’s frame the discussion around general challenges of implicit bias and how that could potentially change.
We need to show up for our community and for each other because if we don’t see ourselves in different roles and support each other in making those moves, then we can’t imagine what is possible. So when I talk to women—and, let’s be clear, to men too—I encourage them to discover what they uniquely do and then show up and do that very thing. I also think it’s important to ask for help and to offer support where possible. In this polarized environment we live in, one of the approaches I try to take is to suspend my assumptions and approach things with curiosity. Start with the inquiry: “Why does this happen?” And then: “What’s my point of view?” And then figure out how to engage and what to do.
For example, the articles you refer to raise questions of potential hostile work environment, free speech, questions of gender and privacy, and so on. I’ll never have the answer, but my POV is that we all have implicit biases and we need to find ways to root them out, increase our understanding of our own biases; then find ways to communicate and change.
No doubt it continues to surprise me that I’m at this stage of my career and we’re still having these difficulties. But change happens through persistent effort. Show up. Be curious. Find your voice, inspire others to find their voice and to speak and act. And lend a hand where possible. This is the one way I know to consistently effect change—but it’s slow hard work and everyone has to get involved.
Speaking of “doing more,” impact investing, social impact companies, social entrepreneurs are all “doing” this work differently and you addressed this at the BVC social impact competition last year. Would you describe yourself/Cascade Angels in this category?
Regarding social impact, it is an important and crucial distinction for those companies because they are solving major social problems. It is not a traditional approach and for that I applaud these founders and CEOs and VCs who strive to be successful leaders and create a social impact together.
Cascade Angels wasn’t created as a social impact investment fund, yet we are committed to impact and economic vitality. Our portfolio companies are employing 150+ people, producing nearly $20 million in revenue a year and adding to the economic growth and vitality in our region. Cascade Angels places a high level of emphasis on leadership to guide successful companies and support engaged employees – and in a variety of industries from SaaS to outdoor gear to biotech to the Internet of Things (IoT).
What is interesting today is that traditional and social impact companies and investors are carving out new approaches to business based on results, collaboration and values. As we meet and communicate with potential investors, community partners and entrepreneurs, it’s clear they are interested in business success as well as Oregon and the Pacific Northwest’s strength as a region.
Best advice you were given?
Listen more than you speak.
What’s your true north?
Kindness (not to be mistaken for naivety) and gratitude.
I hold SUP meetings (a.k.a. “board meetings”) at Riverbend Park. We’ll get on our boards and paddle, take in the views and fresh air, talking for an hour or so and it’s a fun way to have a meeting.
Cascade Angels...15 companies, 150+ employed, nearly $20 million in revenue…what’s ahead?
In the next 3-5 years we will work on engaging more investors and companies. What started as an idea is now a community asset. And our vision is to become a community institution, so that we’re part of the foundation of the region and meet our goals of a return on investment not only for the investors but for the community as well.
A special thanks to Natalie Dent, Investor and Entrepreneur Relations for Cascade Angels, Natalie@cascadeangels.com