Birmingham a hotbed for startups and young professionals

Maggie Belshe
Maggie Belshe

ComebackTown is published by David Sher to begin a discussion on a better Birmingham.

Today’s guest blogger is Maggie Belshe.  If you’d like to be a guest blogger, please click here.

I’ve lived in Birmingham about four months now, and people still ask me where I’m from. I grew up in San Francisco, and went to school in New York.

The next question is inevitably some variation of “what brought you to Birmingham?” The short answer is Venture for America– a two-year fellowship in which recent graduates gain hands-on experience building a company under the guidance of an entrepreneur.

Modeled after Teach for America, Venture for America (VFA) aims to provide young adults with transformative career experiences while leveraging entrepreneurship to drive impact in emerging communities. Central to its mission is the economic revitalization of American cities and job growth.

There are 8 of us fellows in Birmingham’s inaugural class, each with our own reasons for choosing VFA, and each with our own reasons for choosing this city as our home for the next 2+ years.

Before Birmingham

As a San Francisco native spending my college years in New York City, I realized my experience of this country was limited to a very specific niche, and wanted to experience other parts of the United States.

I didn’t know much about Birmingham, but as I read through the descriptions of available jobs for Venture for America fellows, I kept coming back to Pack Health. From my parents’ experiences with healthcare and from a brief survey of statistics on chronic disease in America, I knew that the service Pack Health provides – personalized support to help people with chronic conditions navigate the healthcare system and build habits for better health – was unique and much-needed in this country. The more I learned about Pack Health, the more confident I became that this was where I wanted to work.

Yet even as I decided to pursue this job, I found myself fighting a deep skepticism of Birmingham. I had the concerns of a coast-to-coast snob, questions about the number of cultural offerings, about the availability of healthy and gourmet food, and about how I’d fit in a Southern community. Then I flew down for an on-site interview, and in less than 48 hours, the people at Pack Health completely changed my mind.

Meeting the Magic City

 I was picked up at the airport (which notably doesn’t happen in every city) by a future coworker – a Birmingham native who’d gone to University of Virginia for college and has since traveled the world. She told me she never thought she’d come back to Birmingham, but in the last few years, the city has been changing, and she’s glad to be back. She enthusiastically described new developments in Birmingham, the opportunities she’s had at Pack Health, and the incredible potential in her hometown.

Between meeting and chatting with other future coworkers, attending a Rotaract luncheon, and getting beers at Good People after work, I heard this narrative time and time again. By the time we got to Hotbox for dinner, I had started to suspect that Birmingham was where I wanted to spend the next two years of my life – or maybe even a more significant chunk of time.

Within a week, I was accepting a job offer and planning my move. I’ve been living and working in Birmingham for four months now, and while I still feel like a newcomer, not once have I regretted my decision to make this place my home.

 This place is engaging.

As a young professional in Birmingham, I’ve been invited to take part in a transformation unlike anything I’ve seen in any other city.  In our short time here, our class of fellows have participated in OnBoard Birmingham, visited the Rotary Club, attended Tech Birmingham events, and imbibed at Startup Drinks. We’ve spoken with future entrepreneurs in UAB’s Innovation Lab, led entrepreneurship classes with Birmingham City School students (through The Birmingham Ed Foundation), volunteered at Jones Valley Teaching Farm, the list goes on and on.

From our exposure to these organizations and opportunities, we’ve seen so much optimism and receptivity for startups and young professionals right now, making it easy and exciting for us to jump right in. It’s no wonder Birmingham was recently named the number one city for millennial entrepreneurs.

This place is dynamic.

Birmingham is changing from a city that was dominated by a small number of large companies to a healthy mix of both large and small companies, led by the vibrant surge of entrepreneurship.

While this trend is reflected across the United States (where the number of small businesses has increased 49% since 1982*), not all of these cities are set up to foster and celebrate entrepreneurship at scale. Birmingham has started to do so, with job training programs, incentives, and support for local people to build things small and scale. I see this entrepreneurial spirit flowing into community– from the entrepreneurial curriculum in Ed Foundation programs, to UAB iLab student businesses taking off, to REV and Create Birmingham’s co-starters program.

These are the things that excite me most, the reasons this city continues to grow. I believe it is this intentionality that makes Birmingham the one to watch, now and in years to come.

There’s no better place to start a career.

Part of VFA’s mission is that we help to create jobs and grow entrepreneurial ecosystems in VFA cities. We accomplish this by helping early stage companies grow. We accomplish this to a greater degree the longer we stay in our VFA cities, the more engaged we become with the community, and the more we’re able to build companies of our own.

The magic city has inspired me to live up to this mission. As a VFA fellow, I’ve found myself identifying with this blossoming entrepreneurial ecosystem– not because we brought some new ingredient with us to Birmingham, but because of the way the existing community welcomed us with such open arms.

If you are as excited as I am about this city, curious about Venture for America, or just want to connect, reach out!  You contact me directly at maggiebelshe@gmail.com, or reach out to all VFA’s Birmingham fellows at Birmingham@ventureforamerica.org. You can also find more information on VFA and the Birmingham fellows at www.ventureforamerica.com/.

*“Small Business Trends | The U.S. Small Business Administration | SBA.gov.” Small Business Trends. The U.S. Small Business Administration, n.d. Web. 12 Nov. 2015.

Maggie Belshe wrote this piece in collaboration with Courtney Ready and Sanjay Singh. Maggie is an Associate at Pack Health and Venture for America Fellow.

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David Sher is co-CEO of AmSher Compassionate Collections.  He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).

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