Last April after One Spark’s wildfire of innovation smoldered and Jacksonville’s urban core returned to its everyday operating rhythm, Raquel Steffens, founder of the online wishing platform, Bucketwish, struggled to maintain the momentum that had propelled her through the her company’s debut at the crowdfunding festival. The hundreds of talented techies and entrepreneurs she met at One Spark seemed to have scattered like pieces of confetti swept away by street cleaners, along with the festival’s fanfare.
The 38-year-old entrepreneur worked from her home office near Ponte Vedra Beach after One Spark. She found herself feeling alone and craving a way to connect with other startup minds to brainstorm, trouble shoot, pool resources and occasionally just vent.
“I realized there needed to be a little more collaboration between tech founders,” says Steffens.
Meanwhile, across town, another One Spark alumna toiled alone on her own tech venture. Isabelle Killian, founder of TADA Language, a web-based foreign language tool, had recently quit her marketing job to focus full time on building a video library for the website. The French national says she had bags under her eyes and no peer camaraderie to ease the pressure.
Then Steffens sent an email to Killian and 10 other startup entrepreneurs which read: “Alone we break easily; together we conquer.” Sparks flew – not one, but many.
The advent of One Spark spurred the branding of Jacksonville as an emerging tech hub. Forbes Magazine named the city the “second-fastest growing tech-services base” in the United States in 2013. Steffens and hundreds of entrepreneurs like her contributed to that early energy. Now she plans to continue fanning the innovative fires by galvanizing other entrepreneurs, and offering them organized support.
Last May she launched TechFounders Jax, a members-only tech startup group. Still raging with enthusiasm one year later, the female-led group has spun off a wider organization, Jax Community of Entrepreneurs. Jax Community of Entrepreneurs, a 501(c)3 non profit, welcomes any entrepreneur looking for peer support and resources. In February, the group hosted its first Angel Investor Summit, where an audience of 56 angel investors and venture capital firms gathered to hear the pitches of four local startup companies.
When not busy uniting business people, Steffens provides dreamers with an easy way to share their wishes and bucket lists through her website Bucketwish.com. Wishes entered into your Bucketwish profile can be shared via social media with your friends, family and corporate sponsors with the purpose of making them come true. “The more you share your dreams, the more chances you have them becoming a reality,” she says.
Steffens moved to Jacksonville from Madrid with her family 18 years ago at age 20, when her father was relocated through his job. She says she grew up fantasizing about the American Dream and “how all things are possible if you put your mind to it.”
The transplant quickly realized, however, that dreams don’t come true just because you want them to. They must be shared. Steffens left her real estate marketing job in 2013 to start a company to remind people to “dream big.”
Girlie Salgueiro dreamed of starting an online playground for nerds two years ago, when her son said he wished a virtual version of Comic-Con existed. Now, at age 49, she’s learning to code and planning to launch Oodon, a mash-up of Facebook and eBay for those who love the “nerd” pop culture of comic books, superheroes and video games. Oodon, which she founded with her son, allows users to buy geek merchandise, share content and connect with others.
The single mom waited until her children were old enough to leave home before she left her 15-year career in pharmaceutical sales to start the business. Since her kids are grown, this mother of invention is now helping raise Jacksonville’s technology profile through TechFounders Jax and Jax Community of Entrepreneurs.
All three founders agree that gender has not stifled their ambition or tainted their experience in the local tech startup world. But the numbers paint a bleaker picture. Women make up only about 26 percent of the nation’s computing workforce, and venture capital firms choose to invest in startups led by men more often than those lead by women, according to recent reports.
“Tech has been more of a man’s world, but I think things are changing very quickly,” says Steffens. “I think it’s our responsibility as tech women to reach out to other women to say, ‘Hey, this is a possibility.’ I have gotten nothing but support and assistance from all the participants in our tech community.”
Killian, 48, agrees. She says she relied on support from female and male founder-friends in learning to balance her burgeoning business, not only with a day job, but also with her role as a mother and wife. Killian came up with the idea for TADA Language in 2012, after being stopped in Publix by people who overheard her speaking French to her children. Parents, both friends and strangers, asked Killian to come to their homes and teach their children French. The grocery-store scene played out so often that Killian recognized the market opportunity for creating a language tool with a fresh approach to teaching children.
Driven by a love of languages, Killian worked nights and weekends building content for an online video library that would allow parents and teachers to “role play” with their kids and experience typical scenarios for French and Spanish families. In November 2014, the idea officially became a startup when her website launched. She now works full time on TADA Language, a name that captures the essence of a child’s excitement after performing a trick and shouting, “ta da!”
The trio’s next act unfolded at One Spark 2015, where each of the women launched improved versions of their respective companies and wooed fledgling founders to the newly created Jax Community of Entrepreneurs.
“One Spark unbelievably changed the scene,” says Steffens. “It has brought a lot of attention to people who have ideas and want to build a business around their idea. Jacksonville is on the verge of becoming something bigger than we would have ever expected. If I can be a little bit of help to make that happen, I want to be, and I will be.”