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For years now, Arizona has caught the nation’s attention as the “Silicon Desert”, a major hot spot for technology companies and budding startups. Between the state’s lower business costs, more affordable standard of living and growing talent pool, it’s no surprise that Phoenix and Tucson are rapidly climbing the ranks of emerging international startup ecosystems.
The June 2022 episode of the Arizona Technology Council’s AZTechCast podcast featured startup ecosystem experts including Stephanie Bermudez, founder & CEO of Startup Unidos; Eric Smith, executive director of The University of Arizona Center for Innovation; and Diana Vowels, CEO of StartupAZ. These leaders joined Karen Nowicki, president and owner of Phoenix Business RadioX, and Steve Zylstra, president and CEO of the Arizona Technology Council, in discussing the statewide entrepreneurial support hubs that are helping to elevate technology-minded startup founders.
Throughout this hour-long episode, this panel of startup experts spoke at length about the evolution of Arizona’s regional startup ecosystems over the past five to ten years. As Diana mentioned, Arizona used to be where companies put their back offices or inside sales operations because large technology companies did not realize the full potential of Arizona. Eric echoed that sentiment and shared that Arizona’s various startup ecosystems were successful independently, but had not yet come together to support companies across the state. Over the past several years, he has been very impressed by how the pieces are coming together to collectively support the growth of up-and-coming startup founders and their ventures.
When Diana first started working with technology companies in Arizona ten years ago, she brought a wealth of experience supporting startup founders in other states across the country. Left and right, she heard people tell Arizona founders that they would have to move their business to the Bay Area or New York City or Boston to be able to successfully raise capital and get their ventures off the ground. But now, she states that Arizona has grown up into a real technology hub. Through her work and the work of her colleagues at StartupAZ, they have successfully empowered over 100 founders that now employ over 1,200 employees and are collectively valued at over $1 billion. They now focus much of their work on identifying high-potential founders to participate in their 10-founder StartupAZ Collective, a tight-knit group of CEOs who are working through their challenges and wins together.
Although there are a wide variety of resources available for small businesses, Eric noted that many founders are not eligible to receive them. They may not have the collateral to be backed by a traditional loan, or face a number of other small-print barriers that keep them from scaling their operations. To combat these restrictions, the University of Arizona Center for Innovation started a sponsorship program that encourages corporations and municipalities to sponsor startups and cover their expenses for opportunities like pitch competitions. They also have an international soft landings program that brings international companies to Arizona and introduces them to the myriad networks and resources that founders can take advantage of. In fact, they recently hosted a few Canadian startups and one of them has chosen to set up their U.S.-based operations here, an indication of the robust startup ecosystem present in Southern Arizona and beyond.
As the founder and CEO of Startup Unidos, Stephanie brought a very interesting perspective to the conversation. She understands firsthand the challenges that startup founders face when first getting started. As a woman of color, she described the nuances that subconsciously convey exclusion to many founders of color. She said that it’s not enough to merely translate resources into Spanish – inclusive spaces must also consider the identities of the people attending their events, the social classes they represent, the clothing they’re wearing and a variety of other factors that unintentionally create divides. She mentioned that community organizations like the Community Investment Corporation are working hard to rewrite how accessing capital works by basing funding decisions off of storytelling and impact, not just credit. She also highlighted that Latinx founders specifically go to friends and family for capital as they oftentimes do not have the same level of trust with banking institutions as other communities do. Stephanie believes that folks are united in their realization that more intentional diversification of startup ecosystems needs to happen, and is moving this work forward by cultivating entrepreneurship in the borderlands and facilitating partnership opportunities between Southern Arizona and the Mexican state of Sonora.
Despite the unique lens that each of these guest speakers brought to the table, they agreed that Arizona’s startup ecosystem is a welcoming one, not just because of the warmer climate, the more affordable cost of living or the diverse talent pool, but because of the kind people and their willingness to facilitate connections whenever possible. Watch the replay below for more insight on this engaging conversation!
The official podcast of the Arizona Technology Council, AZTechCast is dedicated to covering innovation and technology in Arizona and beyond. Through the art of the connected conversation, AZ TechCast’s hosts and guests share success stories, tech news and analysis about the region’s leading startups, companies and emerging technologies, as well as the latest industry trends and critical issues propelling Arizona’s growing technology ecosystem. Visit www.aztechcouncil.org/techcast to learn more or to listen to recent episodes.
About Phoenix Business RadioX
Karen Nowicki is the owner and president of Phoenix Business RadioX. Amplifying the voice of business, Phoenix Business RadioX helps local businesses and professional associations get the word out about the important work they’re doing to serve their market, profession and community. A successful author, speaker and the creator of Deep Impact Leadership™ and SoulMarks Coaching™, Nowicki is a two-time recipient of the prestigious national Choice Award® for her book and personal development retreat. In addition, Nowicki has been an expert guest on regional TV and radio shows, including Fox Phoenix Morning Show, Sonoran Living, Good Morning Arizona, The Chat Room and Mid-Day Arizona. Recognized for her leadership and business acumen, she has been a regular contributor to many print and online magazines – publishing articles and blogs for business and education.
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