Always remember no one is truly self-made, and always look for ways to lift others so they can reach their potential too. Lifting others is not only a responsibility, but you will also find you can learn something too.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Linda Olson, the CEO & founder of Tampa Bay Wave, a 501c3 nonprofit that has supported 270 tech startups since 2013 with an accelerator program, coworking, and other services. Collectively, these startups have raised over $200 million and created over 1,500 jobs. With extensive mentor and investor networks, Wave’s accelerator is the only Florida-based accelerator accepted into GAN, the global accelerator network. Linda has been a founder or management team member of several tech startups since 1999. Prior to that, Linda managed ERP implementation projects for Fortune 500 companies with Arthur Andersen. Linda is an original member of Startup America Partnership, founded by the Case Foundation in 2011, and is currently an active member of Startup Champions Network. Linda serves as an Honorary Commander at MacDill Air Force Base and serves on the advisory boards at the Straz Center, Centre for Women, and Visit Tampa Bay.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
What a question! Certainly, no kid has ever said they want to be an entrepreneurial ecosystem builder when they grow up, and neither did I. Instead, this Florida native found herself working for a dotcom in Boston in the late 90’s, and I was bitten hard by the entrepreneurial bug. By the mid-2000’s, I was back in Florida running my own tech startup and found my hometown of Tampa Bay seriously lacking in capital, talent, mentorship, and other resources that I had grown accustomed to in Boston. I expected some gaps in our local ecosystem, but they were much bigger than I had anticipated.
In Boston, specifically Cambridge where I had lived and worked, it was hard to avoid people who were running startups, investing in startups, working for startups, wanting to work for startups, etc. Back in Tampa Bay, it was quite the opposite in the mid-2000’s, and it didn’t help that I was trying to build a tech startup around the time of our country’s greatest recession. Over the next couple years, I managed to come across a dozen tech entrepreneurs like myself in Tampa Bay and decided we would all be best served by sticking together, sharing resources, comparing notes, and fostering a peer support group.
Ultimately, I found my true calling in life. I decided to put my own startup on hold to change my hometown’s future. Now I work with over 100 startups each year with a nonprofit I founded, called Tampa Bay Wave. The work we do not only helps these startups reach their full potential, but we are also helping to weave the ecosystem fabric of Tampa Bay’s future so that hundreds more can also reach their full potential.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
The most interesting story has to be how Tampa Bay Wave went from an all-volunteer, zero-budget meetup to becoming a nationally-recognized organization. That’s right. Wave began as merely a meetup for local tech startups. However, after a few years, it became clear that unless there is a more coordinated effort, the ecosystem in Tampa Bay would continue to fall short. In my heart, I simply wanted to break the myth that tech startups cannot grow and thrive in my hometown.
After corralling a few local people who shared a similar passion and believed in this vision for a nonprofit that could change the economic makeup of my community, we got to work on a strategic plan, even though we had no way to fund it… yet. And while none of us came from economic development, academia, or even the world of nonprofits, perhaps this story is an example of when ignorance is bliss.
Around the time we wrapped up our shell of a strategic plan, I came across an announcement for a $1 million grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration, an arm of the U.S. Department of Commerce, to launch proof of concept centers for innovation in communities like Tampa Bay that had been hit hard by the recession. On the surface, this was exactly the kind of grant we needed to start funding our vision. However, my all-volunteer operation had no chance of winning such a grant (or so I thought), especially considering this grant required a $1 million match from the local business community. At the time we had no experience writing grants of any nature and this grant was due in less than four weeks.
Incredibly, serendipity played a hand as did massive support from the local business community and partners such as the University of South Florida, Florida Blue, Sykes Enterprises, AVI-SPL, Tribridge, and many others. In the fall of 2012, our grant proposal was awarded, and the rest was history.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Some people might not consider this a mistake, but we certainly learned a few things about these federal grants. Federal grants are intended to fund programs; not necessarily help launch a brand-new organization. So, while everyone in Tampa Bay was celebrating that we had just won this grant, I was looking at the $4,000 in our bank account and knew we had nowhere near the minimum $135,000 of working capital on hand that we needed to start hiring and signing a lease. We literally had no way to even begin operations since this was an expense reimbursement grant, and all the corporate matching dollars were committed but slow to come in. Because this federal grant was such big news, I knew that I could not fail to launch without a lot of public egg on my face. However, within about three months, I was finally able to collect enough nickels and dimes, and we finally launched operations in March 2013. And if that wasn’t enough, I became pregnant in the middle of all the chaos, only making the situation that much more interesting. I told my husband if we had a boy, I was going to name him Grant.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
The Tampa Bay Wave story stands out because this is truly a story of a community coming together for good. There is no way we could have landed this first federal grant without an unbelievable amount of community support. Several major companies in town chipped in with matching cash and sponsorship dollars to help us launch our programs and services. Surprisingly, even the local entrepreneurs themselves came out to help build this Wave story… literally. While we were able to collect enough funds to start hiring people and signing a lease, back in early 2013 we still didn’t have enough cash on hand to afford some of the basics, like furniture. The 16,000 square-foot office space we moved into was full of furniture, but frankly it was not the right kind of furniture for the kinds of programs we were launching or customers we were serving. So, we came up with the brilliant idea to throw a “build-your-own-desk party”. Local entrepreneurs showed up one evening with power tools and lots of creative energy, and we spent the evening busting apart the old furniture and making it into useful furniture for all. Even the local TV news teams came out to cover this story. It was kind of fun, and everyone was very proud of their accomplishments.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Wave is always working on new projects. I am incredibly excited for several new programs we are looking to launch in the next 12–18 months. Thanks to our membership in GAN (GAN.co) and our programs like our TechDiversity Accelerator that is powered by the Nielsen Foundation, we continue to explore opportunities that leverage both our experience and growing networks across the United States. For example, in the second year of our TechDiversity program, we attracted well over 400 applications, with more than 80% of applications coming from startups outside of Florida. So be on the lookout for some announcements from us in the next 6–18 months about other programs that will likely have a national reach as well.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Exude confidence. Leadership requires confidence because teams thrive on that confidence. As women, we are often socialized to undersell our strengths, and this can lead to a ‘quiet confidence’ that many people cannot easily see. Then again, I sometimes run into women who truly lack confidence, even though studies show that women-led teams outperform the men-led teams in terms of revenues and ROI. So, whether you are the quiet confidence type, or you struggle with confidence yourself, you must make it a priority to build and maintain that confidence, including surrounding yourself with a small group of other women leaders who support each other. Whatever it is you need, make it a priority and let it shine!
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
I believe every leader should maintain the perspective that you work for your team and not the other way around. What if your team could fire you? Well guess what? They do when they quit their job and leave for another employer. So, you must lead your team, small or large, in a way that you would want to be led yourself.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I certainly have a long list. However, Tony DiBenedetto is the person I’d like to mention here. He was the hiring manager who recruited me out of Florida State University to work alongside his team at Arthur Andersen. I learned a lot working under him for several years. Furthermore, he is truly instrumental in the entire story of Tampa Bay Wave. When I was looking to turn Wave from a meetup group into a non-profit, Tony was the guy who really helped open doors for me throughout the business community. At the time, he was CEO of Tribridge, a company that Tony ultimately exited from after it was sold in 2017 for over $150 million. Tony was a terribly busy guy, running a global technology company, and yet he made time to help. For example, Tony introduced me to Chuck Sykes, the CEO of Sykes Enterprises (NYSE: SYKE). Without this introduction and Chuck’s major influence on our successful U.S. Department of Commerce grant application, there would be no Tampa Bay Wave story.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Not only have I built a successful organization, but it is also making an incredible difference in my home state. Wave helps local entrepreneurs build incredible job-generating businesses for the Tampa Bay community, employing hundreds today. Wave has also created a platform to help hundreds of others make important contributions that are building Tampa Bay’s future — as mentors, investors, and more. I can only imagine the impact this has on families throughout the region, including generations to come.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
My 5 Leadership Lessons:
1. Know your authentic self, find your inner strength, and let it shine through. Everyone has super powers, and when you are properly tapped into your full potential, your options are endless.
2. Relationships are like rose bushes — you have to continually invest in taking care of them if you want them to bloom. In business, you need those relationships — as customers, vendors, employees, or even just connectors.
3. Don’t hold grudges. You need that brain power for better purposes.
4. Find your guideposts and stay focused on them, especially for the occasional storm.
5. Always remember no one is truly self-made, and always look for ways to lift others so they can reach their potential too. Lifting others is not only a responsibility, but you will also find you can learn something too.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I’ve always said that Wave’s mission will not be complete until we can connect the dots back to the kids in our community, especially the at-risk youth. Our local schools do a great job providing STEM education. However, I believe more kids would get turned onto tech and entrepreneurial paths if they witnessed those who they could relate to in their community achieving entrepreneurial success. If at-risk children are given the resources to work towards a career in technology, especially where the wages are far above the region’s median wages, we could change the lives of entire families and possibly break the poverty cycle for many as well.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“All of the money in the world cannot solve problems unless we work together, there is no problem in the world that can stop us, as we seek to develop people to their highest potential.” — Ewing Marion Kauffman
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx. First, she has an amazing entrepreneurial success story and is also a woman and a native of Tampa Bay. As someone who is also an investor in Steve Case’s Rise of the Rest fund, I know she wants to empower underserved populations to pursue entrepreneurship and gain control of their economic future. She herself is living proof that exceptional talent is not limited to only the usual tech and entrepreneurial hubs. If she is willing, I would love to see if she has ideas for helping my organization inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs in Tampa Bay.
Thank you for all of these great insights!