Growing up in St. Pete Beach, Linda Olson watched her father run a small commercial art business out of their home. It was valuable early exposure to entrepreneurship for the woman who today is helping shape the future of entrepreneurship in the Tampa Bay region.
As the founder and CEO of Tampa Bay Wave, a nonprofit organization with a mission to enable and support high-growth web and mobile technology startups throughout the region, Olson and her team support more than 200 tech startups and more than 250 entrepreneurs to build, launch, and grow breakout tech businesses.
When Olson started Tampa Bay Wave in 2008, she was trying to get her own tech business off the ground but was running into a lack of resources, support and talent. She believed that with the right support, the region had the potential to be the next Austin, Texas, or Seattle. Wave partnered with the University of South Florida and landed a $1 million federal grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce to launch the FirstWave Accelerator program and open an innovation space in Tampa. Since its launch in 2013, companies in FirstWave have raised more than $213 million in early-stage investment capital and created more than over 1,600 jobs.
Not bad for the self-described “beach girl,” who was the first in her immediate family to attend college and went on to earn an MBA from Columbia Business School. Read on as Olson shares how her childhood influenced her career path, the joys and challenges of working with tech startups, and what she sees as the future of entrepreneurship in the region.
How did your family shape the leader you are today?
Neither of my parents went to college, but my father ran a business out of our house, so I got exposed very early on to someone running a business. My father had a very old-school perspective that college wasn’t for women. But I wanted to be in control of my destiny and not let how I was brought up control that. My mother squirreled away money and we found a way for me to attend Florida State University.
I decided a business degree would help me figure out how to be in control of my future. I left with a degree in accounting and a minor in information technology because I was intrigued by systems and technology and what they could do for companies.
How did you get involved in technology startups?
Right out of college, I took a job with Arthur Anderson in the business consulting group, which helped clients solve technology problems. Within a couple of years, I was running multimillion-dollar technology projects. But it wasn’t enough. Something was missing. After talking with friends, someone said I would be really valuable to tech startups. So, I took a job with a tech startup in Boston and was there nearly four years. On paper, the company looked great with Ivy League-educated executives and experienced leaders, but we did not have a profitable working business model. We were losing money every month. It was such an intellectual challenge for me to have educated leaders and top firms backing us and all these customers, and yet it wasn’t turning into a massive financial success. We ended up selling the company, but it was an incredible experience. I learned that entrepreneurship was missing from my career. I left wanting to do it again, but with a different outcome.
What led you to create Tampa Bay Wave?
When I moved back to the region, I thought I would find a tech startup to join. It wasn’t long before I realized I didn’t want to work for someone else. Instead, I tried to build a tech startup. The entrepreneurial ecosystem had pockets of goodness, but it was pretty bad. Most frustrating was that there didn’t seem to be an urgency among the community to provide the resources these companies needed. Rather than complaining about what people weren’t doing, I started Wave with 10 or 12 other entrepreneurs. In 2011, we formed as a nonprofit, and it’s been like drinking from a fire hose ever since. A lot of new entrepreneurs are coming out of the woodwork.
What are the challenges and opportunities for entrepreneurs in the region?
We need more capital options. Talent attraction and retention is also still a bit of an issue. We’ve made a lot of progress, but we still have a long way to go. At the same time, I could not be more bullish on our entrepreneurial ecosystem. It’s great to see the continual awakening of the greater community now that we have more resources and examples of growing companies.
A great example is ConnectWise. That company created 70 new millionaires in the region. I want 70 more millionaires in the next couple of years. When people make that kind of money, they’re more likely to find the next startup and get involved. That’s the circle of life.
What are you excited about as the Tampa Bay region and the entrepreneurial ecosystem continue to grow?
This community is so open and welcoming and people want to help. It’s the biggest small town in America. I really think Tampa Bay is going to burst onto the national tech scene in a few years. Our culture embraces and celebrates entrepreneurs and that makes our potential unlimited.
How do you support the community with philanthropic work?
I always want to grow a bigger, stronger technology community here. A lot of kids who have potential still have barriers in front of them, most through no fault of their own. I support organizations that support kids in the community to give them a shot at a better life and to be in control of their own destinies. That’s why I work with organizations like Junior Achievement and the Boys & Girls Club.
What do you see as the future of entrepreneurship in the region, for women in particular?
We still need more startup volume if we want to compete with the Austins of the world. That requires more capital. Women, in particular, receive far less than 10 percent of the venture capital in the country. All of Florida gets 1.5 percent of the venture capital in the country. That’s a problem. If you’re a woman, you’re getting less than 10 percent of that 1.5 percent. We want to improve those ratios to help great companies, especially women-led companies, grow so we can grow the entire region. ♦