Yes, Milwaukee can compete with the coasts on startups. Gener8tor shows us how.

By Chris Jenkins

Director of Communications, MMAC

Joe Kirgues and Troy Vosseller went to high school together, but they didn’t necessarily socialize in the same circles. Only later, after working together in the entrepreneurship clinic at University of Wisconsin Law School, would they team up to build perhaps the most accomplished accelerator program in the Midwest.

Founded as a “love letter to Milwaukee” in 2012, gener8tor began as a way to help Wisconsin-based startups to take flight through a combination of investment and mentorship.

The company now has more than 90 employees in 28 cities, from Anchorage, Alaska to San Juan, Puerto Rico. They’ll invest in more than 35 startups this year and offer coaching and mentorship to more than 300 others. They have expanded their focus to include art, music and upskilling.

They’re still based right here in Milwaukee, but the nation is noticing. They’ve achieved a Gold ranking in the Seed Accelerator Rankings Project, and nearly every other accelerator program on the list is based on the coasts. Graduates of the gener8tor and gBETA accelerators have raised over $600 million in follow-on financing and created thousands of full-time jobs. Success stories include EatStreet, Understory, Bright Cellars and Pretty Litter.

Milwaukee Commerce recently spoke with Kirgues:

Milwaukee Commerce: How would you describe gener8tor’s mission?

Joe Kirgues: Gener8tor strives to be the best partner for communities to invest into themselves, and we think communities that have dedicated ways to invest in their best and brightest are the ones best positioned to succeed. We try to be a partner for communities to create transformational community wealth, jobs and leaders.

MC: How did you and Troy decide to start doing this?

JK: I think we had a shared perspective that startups needed a way to go from an idea to revenue to some amount of scale. And that there were models built from the bottom up, like accelerators, that were really good at trying to change that. So we started it, really, as a love letter to Milwaukee and Madison – could we be a way for the community to channel its mentorship network and resources into emerging talent to help catalyze new startups and leaders?

MC: What was that first year like?

JK: I used to lay in my bed at night and look at the ceiling and wonder if this was what it was like to be crazy, but not self-aware. We were writing these $20,000 checks. We believed we could invest in our best and brightest. Even now at $100,000, it’s not a wild investment. But to ask those people with that money to create companies worth tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, is no small task.

That first cohort had EatStreet and Understory, which have now raised tens of millions and employ a lot of people. Everyone involved wanted to do more.

I think that first year, going from “theoretically this works” to “this actually works” was a humbling and very difficult task. And we’re enormously proud of the founders who showed that with a little bit of conviction, we could get a lot of outcome.

MC: How did you grow it from there?

JK: We ran two cohorts in Milwaukee and Madison for three or four years. We were proud that American Family Insurance came on as a sponsor.

They’ve been a really key partner.

We got nationally ranked in our third or fourth year. We were the youngest player in the rankings. We were really the only one outside of Silicon Valley. So for this from-scratch, “Could we get through the summer?,” initiative to turn into a nationally regarded program, it probably helped us believe in ourselves more than anything else.

We’re competing against a lot of private market players like 500 Startups and Dreamit who are San Francisco, New York, L.A.-based. And we’re able to, pound-for-pound, be as good as them in a market that’s got a fraction of the activity.

MC: You faced some skepticism initially?

JK: In markets where you don’t have a vibrant venture capital community, there’s inevitably been attempts and failures, and there’s this sense that you’re going to be the next obituary. The community becomes zero-sum – if you succeed, what does that mean for my own efforts? It unfortunately inhibits a collaborative atmosphere. We had incredible champions. I don’t want to diminish that at all. I’ll point to Chris Abele and American Family as people who said early on they wanted to help us build this.

MC: Why stay here?

JK: It’s still a love letter to Milwaukee. And people wonder, how does

your expansion balance with your commitment to the city? I think we would be proud to point to our graduates as some of the most exciting startups in the community, and those outcomes were only possible because of our scale.

MC: If you and your graduates can make it here, does that show others can make it here too?

JK: We’re operating in Wyoming and Puerto Rico intentionally, because they’re the lowest on the venture rankings. We want to go places where you have every right to believe that tomorrow will be better than today, and we want to be a partner in getting to that point.

In terms of the city, if we sometimes come off as frustrated, it’s because when you see what’s possible when you invest from the bottom up in emerging talent. You wonder what we’ve been missing. Offering perspectives like that helps the community re-orient to prioritize their own resources to get the biggest outcomes. Our graduates have imported hundreds of millions of growth capital into Wisconsin. And  it’s because other people see the potential here.

You don’t want to look at another community and say they believe in their own more than we do – or, even worse, they believe in our own more than we do.

I always tell our founders, you have a bigger role to play as a leader in Milwaukee than you might somewhere else because the community needs more people like you. As a founder, I think accomplishing it here means something else than in a community where 30 other people already did it. That opportunity for people who want to make their mark on the world is a more attainable goal here.

MC: What could Milwaukee do differently to improve as a place for startups?

JK: For business leaders reading this article, have you taken your own capital to invest in your community? Our message is you can do well by doing right. You can invest in the community, and it can be a great investment.

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