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Essay

Why Startups Are Thriving Outside Silicon Valley

Steve Case is co-founder, chairman, and CEO of Revolution, an investment firm that partners with entrepreneurs to build “built-to-last” businesses, and chairman of the Case Foundation, which he established with his wife, Jean, in 1997. He co-founded America Online in 1985 and became its CEO and chairman, retiring as chairman of AOL Time Warner in 2003.

If I mention cities like Memphis or Birmingham or Louisville, what are the first things that come to mind? The Blues. Civil Rights. The Kentucky Derby. What you should also be thinking is hotbeds for innovation and startups.

Over the past five years I’ve been championing an initiative I call “Rise of the Rest,” supporting and shining a spotlight on startups and entrepreneurs from cities all across America, not just the typical tech hubs of Silicon Valley, New York and Boston where the majority of the capital and attention goes. Last year, together with Hillbilly Elegy author and venture capitalist JD Vance, I started a $150 million dollar fund – The Rise of the Rest Seed Fund - to invest in early stage opportunities across the country. The fund along with the Rise of the Rest network will help to catalyze more investment going into places like Madison, Omaha, and Cincinnati.

Since 2014, I’ve traveled to 38 cities, over 10,000 miles. In May, I went on my seventh tour, this time visiting cities in the South – Dallas, Memphis, Birmingham, Chattanooga and Louisville. On these tours, we convene key stakeholders from politicians to universities to business and community leaders. We go on an ecosystem crawl, visiting businesses from early stage to growth stage, incubators, accelerators, code academies and other organizations that contribute to the success of the startup community. We end the day with a pitch competition, investing $100,000 in the winner.

Throughout my travels I have seen first-hand the energy and momentum startups and entrepreneurs can bring to a city. I have seen how cities play to their strengths, building businesses around industries in which they have a strong tradition and hard to replicate expertise. Cities like Memphis, headquarters to FedEx, and Chattanooga, located between FedEx and UPS hubs and at the center of three interstate highways and two major rail lines, are poised to create leading companies in the logistics industry. Louisville, home to Humana, has a history in health care, giving startups trying to come up with healthcare solutions an edge.

All of this is to say, I am very bullish on startups in the middle of the country and have the same conviction that the rest will rise as I had 30 years ago when building AOL and knowing the internet would be an important part of the future. I know there is some skepticism out there from venture capitalists, business leaders, and even entrepreneurs on the coasts, thinking that great ideas and great companies can only come out of Silicon Valley, but attitudes are slowly shifting. Don’t take my word for it. Read this recent Business Insider piece that takes a deeper dive into the latest Rise of the Rest tour. 

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