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Memphis Entrepreneurs Have the Grit to Win

The following is a feature in the spring issue of Memphis Crossroads digital magazine. Click here to read the full magazine.

Memphis is fundamentally an entrepreneurial city with all the resources it needs to become even more than it is. That’s Leslie Lynn Smith’s read on the Bluff City.

She is a nationally recognized entrepreneurial and business development leader who recently left Detroit to become the first president of what is best known as EPIcenter, or the Memphis Entrepreneurship Powered Innovation Center. Its job is to be a “single front door” to entrepreneurs seeking resources and direction to successfully launch and grow their businesses in Memphis.

Smith is enthused by the unity she sees behind business building in the Bluff City and sees great things happening with that collective energy. During a recent conversation, she singled out the private sector for its commitment to entrepreneurship. The Chairman’s Circle, a leadership team of Greater Memphis Chamber business leaders that has launched “moon missions” to impact social and economic issues in Memphis, is evidence of that collective willpower behind decided strategies. One of those moon missions is fostering the creation of 1,000 new entrepreneurs in 10 years.

EPIcenter, designed to focus on Memphis’ existing economic strengths, such as logistics and emerging technologies, was formed by the Chairman’s Circle just over a year ago. Smith was selected as EPIcenter’s president by a search committee of members of the Chairman’s Circle, the corporate and philanthropic communities, and participants in the local entrepreneurial ecosystem. Smith, who fell for economic development after starting her own real estate company, had been president and CEO of TechTown Detroit, that city’s most established business accelerator and incubator. At TechTown, she used innovative business models and economic development programs to energize Detroit’s economy. Before TechTown, she was a director at Michigan Economic Development Corp. She’s in Memphis to work her magic here.

“There is so much going on here and so much potential,” said Smith. “There are so many treasures here. From an economic development perspective, it feels palpable. The goals are reachable.”

She joins an organization that already is celebrating successes. Among them:

  • The EPIcenter Logistics Innovation Accelerator, an entrepreneurship accelerator program sponsored by FedEx to help startups bring innovative logistics technology to market, is accepting applications. The first cohort will be selected this summer and start in August.
  • EPIcenter Growth Academy continues to offer monthly educational events geared toward helping companies scale up growth.
  • Ariste Medical, a pre-commercial drug-device company, announced a $4.6 million investment for continued development of its drug-eluting hernia mesh, intended to reduce the risk of intra-abdominal infection.
  • Innnova, a venture capital firm, was a key investor in a round of funding totaling $1.5 million for Silicone Arts Laboratories, manufacturers of Dermaflage, used to conceal scars.
To Smith, EPIcenter is about creating a community and culture where entrepreneurs feel supported and safe, providing an environment that suggests failure is forgiven and the pie is big enough for all of us to enjoy. She defines her role as a sharer of strategies, to be a “road block remover” as she engages all the participants in an open exchange of ideas. It’s a team effort.

“I will work to develop a safe and creative space for entrepreneurs and support organizations by connecting, collaborating and catalyzing current activities and piloting new programs to fill the gaps,” Smith said. “We will work with intention to celebrate our spirit of innovation and legacy of entrepreneurship, shining a light on successes and allowing us to collectively feel the impact of this work on Memphis.”

Memphis Bioworks was selected as the lead organization with EPIcenter due to its experience and results. Smith, 47, an outdoorsy person who was attracted to Memphis in part due to the warmer climate, has also been named vice president of Bioworks’ executive team. She was impressed with Bioworks’ record of putting energy behind business building. Dr. Steve Bares, who as president and executive director of Memphis Bioworks had been heading up EPIcenter, recruited Smith to apply for the EPIcenter job. 

“I got to know her when I went up to Detroit and saw the work she’d done there,” Bares said. “I thought, ‘That’s the kind of leadership we need in Memphis.”

Spence Wilson, Jr., co-chair of the Chairman’s Circle, learned of Smith’s credentials when she applied for the EPIcenter president job. “She understands what all is involved in creating an entrepreneurial ecosystem,” he said. “We have a lot of pieces in place but we’re also going to have to add pieces. She’s had experience with that in Detroit. We think she’s going to do a tremendous job here.”

Memphis and Tennessee already are being recognized for the entrepreneurial spirit Smith saw in the city. eDivv, a Memphis-headquartered business where women can trade beauty products, was featured by a Forbes contributor recently in “Is Tennessee the New Hotspot for Women Entrepreneurs?” Memphis was also given the No. 7 overall spot in a “2015’s Best Cities to Start a Business,” released by WalletHub after a study of the 150 most populated U.S. cities.

Memphis already has all the resources it needs to become even more than it is, Smith says, and “a gritty commitment to winning.” Action will take Memphis to the next level. She predicts the entrepreneurial force is “about to burst into outcomes.” Her vision is to help Memphians to see their city as it truly is, to “see themselves as part of something great.” 

Written by: Toni Lepeska
Photo by: Troy Glasgow

Posted: 7/21/2015 7:30:00 AM | with 0 comments
Filed under: Chairman's, Circle, Corner, Crossroads, EPIcenter, Leslie, Lynn, Memphis, Office, Smith

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